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Halloween Candy: It's Not How Much Kids Eat, It's When

Prolonged exposure to acid in the mouth is the culprit, pediatric dentist says

THURSDAY, Oct. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Halloween and its avalanche of candy is coming, making it the worst time of year for children's teeth, right?

Not necessarily, says a dentist who contends that parents can make a big difference by monitoring when their kids eat their sweets.

"Parents need to know that frequency is far more important than amount when it comes to taking in" sugars, said Dr. Mark Helpin, acting chairman of Temple University's Department of Pediatric Dentistry. "It's not how much we eat but how often we eat these kinds of things that will place us at increased risk of dental decay and cavities."

Candy remains a huge part of Halloween for tens of millions of American kids and their candy-buying -- or candy-pilfering -- parents. The National Confectioners Association says 93 percent of children in the United States go trick-or-treating, and the group estimates that Halloween candy sales this year will top $2.26 billion.

But children -- and adults -- are less at risk of developing tooth decay if they eat sweets -- or even carbohydrate-heavy foods like potato chips and crackers -- at mealtimes, Helpin said.

Cavities are most likely to develop when your mouth is exposed to the acid created by bacteria during eating, Helpin said. "When we eat [at meals], the flow of saliva increases. We're also taking in other liquids that will help wash the mouth out," he said.

But if you snack during the day, the teeth are continuously bathed in acid, he said. "If I have four pieces of candy, and I eat all four at one time, my mouth will have acid in it for 30 to 60 minutes. If I eat one each hour, my mouth can be exposed to acid for four hours," he added.

So what should you do? The worst time to give kids sweets is right before bedtime, Helpin said. As for mealtimes -- like lunchtime at school -- it's wise for children to swish a liquid in their mouths to wash away acid, he said.

When it comes to Halloween, Helpin recommends that parents not get overly concerned about candy and their kids. "I don't think Halloween week is going to be the make-or-break factor in whether someone will get a number of new cavities," he said.

Helpin recommends that parents have their kids brush their teeth after eating candy. If that's not possible, have them rinse their mouth with water three or four times after eating. This will help cut down on acidity in the mouth, he said.

There can be special concerns about Halloween treats if your child is among the 3 million American boys and girls with food allergies.

"Candy products frequently include ingredients like peanuts, tree nuts, milk and egg, some of the most common food allergens in children," Dr. Jacqueline A. Pongracic, an official with the Milwaukee-based American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, said in a news release issued by the organization. "Peanuts and tree nuts are common causes of severe, life-threatening reactions, and children and their parents need to be aware of this and check ingredients for all treats. This can be especially tricky with Halloween candies, which often do not have ingredients listed on their labels."

According to the AAAAI, parents of children with food allergies should do the following:

  • Before Halloween, ask your neighbors to give out safe snacks, even distributing some to them to hand out specifically to your child.
  • Be aware that the smaller candy bars usually passed out to trick-or-treaters may have different ingredients than their regular-size counterparts.
  • Teach your child to politely refuse offers of home-baked goodies like cookies or cupcakes.

More information

Get more Halloween safety tips from the American Red Cross.

Beware of Other Haunted Hazards

On Halloween, parents worry about the safety of their kids as they walk down the streets of their communities, leaving them vulnerable to accidents or injuries.

Mary Muscari, associate professor of nursing at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and author of Not My Kid 2: Protecting Your Children from the 21 Threats of the 21st Century, offers these recommendations:

  • Help your kids choose costumes that allow for adequate vision and mobility.
  • Trick or treat during daylight hours, or make sure at least part of your child's costume is reflective so motorists can see them. And be sure to plan the trick-or-treat route. Select homes you know.
  • Your kids should have charged cell phones and flashlights on hand. And if you're with them, you should have a cell phone and flashlight, too.
  • Older children and teens should be cautious about controversial costumes. Dressing like a gang-banger on the wrong turf can have disastrous consequences.
  • Flame-resistant doesn't mean fireproof, so keep trick-or-treaters away from open flames.

SOURCES: Mark Helpin, DDS, Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry, Temple University, Philadelphia; Mary Muscari, Ph.D., associate professor, nursing, Binghamton University, State University of New York; October 2008, news release, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

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