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Avoid the tricks that come with the treats: Tips for a healthy, happy Halloween

by Julia Dilday
Oct 28, 2008


Courtesy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

When obtained without a doctor's prescription, decorative contact lenses can cause severe eye problems.

With Halloween just around the corner, kids and adults alike can't wait to climb into their costumes and savor their favorite treats.

But the holiday brings twinges of anxiety, too.

Parents may recall Snow White eating the poisoned apple or worry about accelerated tooth decay from all that candy. And that's before anyone starts counting up the extra calories.

But experts say to enjoy Halloween; the threats are minor and manageable.

“It can be a very safe and fun holiday if you use some common sense,” said Carol DesLauriers, clinical services manager at the Illinois Poison Center. 

Health, hygiene and moderation can lighten the load of concerns.

Use non-toxic face paint and makeup.

The Illinois Poison Center recommends avoiding makeup and face paint containing talc, emollient laxatives or hydrocarbons. All of these can be poisonous to children if ingested. “The majority of cosmetics are non-or minimally-toxic,” DesLauriers said.

In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends testing new makeup and face paint on small areas of the skin to check for allergic reactions or minor irritation.

Take precaution before wearing decorative contact lenses.

Although it is actually illegal to purchase any contact lens without a doctor’s prescription, decorative contact lenses that change your eye color are widely available through flea markets, beauty supply stores and other vendors. 

Purchasing decorative lenses under the table is not a good idea, noted Karina Sigulinsky, an optometrist at the Northwestern Medical Center. “There’s specific sizing that has to be fit to each individual’s eye,” she said. “Not everybody’s eye is shaped the same.”

Wearing the wrong lens can lead to corneal ulcers, corneal abrasion, vision impairment and even possible blindness, according to the FDA.

“It’s like putting on the wrong size shoe and wearing it out for the night and then coming home with blisters and pain and you can’t walk for a day,” Sigulinsky said.

Decorative contacts can be worn safely if fitted by a licensed eye care professional and cleaned daily. Don't keep them in overnight, Sigulinsky said. Inserting contacts before makeup and face paint is applied can also limit the risk of eye irritation.

Never allow children to chew on glow sticks and glow necklaces.

Each Halloween, the state poison center receives more phone calls about glow sticks than any other safety hazard, according to DesLauriers.

Dibutyl phthalate, the chemical that gives the glowing effect, smells unpleasant and is a strong irritant. It can cause corneal abrasion if it comes in contact with the eye and a temporary tingling sensation in the mouth if accidentally swallowed.

Although irritating, it is not considered very toxic, so remain calm in the event of a mishap. “If somebody accidently gets a taste of it, they’re going to be OK,” DesLauriers said.

The golden rule for treats: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Deliberate poisonings are not common in Illinois, or the country. “It’s not like the poison center is inundated with poisonings on Halloween,” DesLauriers said. “It truly isn’t.”

Just to be on the safe side, the Illinois Poison Center suggests examining all candy before you or your children eat it. Punctured, discolored, unwrapped or partially wrapped candy should be tossed immediately.

Parents of young children should also check for treats that could pose choking hazards, and avoid accepting homemade goods from strangers, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If people exercise common sense, they should not worry about the deliberate tainting of candy and other Halloween treats, DesLauriers said. It is “so rare that it’s certainly not a large risk,” she said.

Everything in moderation. 

Enjoy treats in moderation and make sure to get 30-60 minutes of physical activity a day to work off those extra calories from any source. But consider that a two-pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups has 260 calories and 15 grams of fat. A single Snickers FunSize bar has 95 calories and 5 grams of fat. Twenty-two pieces of Brach’s candy corn carry 140 calories.

Nutritionists urge people to remember that candy is made of sugar and fat --  it does not have any nutritional value. “They [candies] are empty calories,” said Toby Smithson, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

The food guide pyramid does not list specific recommendations for eating treats, but Smithson, who is also a registered dietitian with the Lake County Health Department, said there are alternatives to traditional candy. Healthier options include sealed mini-packages of snacks such as Teddy Grahams or animal cookies, she said.

Jennifer Vimbor, a registered dietitian and founder of Chicago’s Nutrition Counseling Services, suggests eating a regular meal before digging into the candy bag. When you’re ready to satisfy your sweet tooth after a meal, she advises looking for choices that are lower in fat, such as licorice and York peppermint patties.

Both dietitians said self-restraint is key.

“Halloween is not going away,” Smithson said. “It’s a lot of candy all at one time and the only way to deal with it is in moderation.”

The dentist says, “Go for the chocolate.”

“It’s pretty impossible to expect that people are not going to eat candy,” said Dr. Jason Glick, a pediatric dentist in Evanston.

But, he said, some choices are better than others.

“The worst stuff, which should be avoided pretty much always, is anything that’s sticky and chewy,” Glick said. Chocolate bars are actually a better choice along with cookies and pretzels because they brush off pretty easily, he said.

Drinking water immediately after eating candy to flush out the remnants, and carving out extra time to brush, floss and rinse with a fluoride-containing mouthwash are all good practices, Glick said. “The less time your teeth are exposed to sugar, the better.”

There is some good news for those fretting about the potential impact of Halloween treats on their teeth. “I don’t really think that it has a tremendous impact on peoples’ oral health, but I think it’s a good time to remind people what they should be avoiding in general,” Glick said.

If you suspect poisoning or have questions, call the Illinois Poison Center at  1-800-222-1222  immediately. Doctors and nurses are available to answer your questions 24 hours a day.

For more information on Halloween, including safety tips, use the links on the right.