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How to Make Trick-or-Treating Safe for Children With Allergies

Collecting candy from strangers in the dark—what could go wrong?!

Photo credit: Getty Images
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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I'm a Halloween scrooge.

That’s because my son has food allergies. And like many people whose children have health conditions that restrict their diet, I find holidays that center around food—and I’m hard pressed to find one that doesn’t—to be tremendously stressful.

Halloween is truly the most nerve-wracking. Sweets from strangers—what could go wrong? Handed out in the dark! With teeny-tiny labels! Other kids popping Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as they go! If my food allergic child accidentally eats the wrong candy (or gets some of that Reese’s on his hands), his immune system can overreact and trigger hives, vomiting and even anaphylaxis, a life-threatening emergency.

“Don’t you just hate Halloween?” my friend Sharlene Breakey, whose 15-year-old has an allergy to eggs, confides. “I always breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over.”

Sharlene could be speaking for all of us. “Holidays can be very stressful for children and adults with food allergies,” says Dr. Punita Ponda, associate division chief at the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Cohen Children's Medical Center and head of the Food Allergy Center at Northwell Health. “In order to participate in the holiday, you have to deal with food in a very public way.”

Who wants to be on display when they’re out having fun? My son turned to me mid-trick or treat two years ago and said, “I realized it’s easier to just say ‘No thank you’ than to explain my allergies at every house.” I felt proud and crushed all at once: Proud that he has found his own workaround, crushed that he not only can’t eat whatever candy he wants, but that he had to explain why he can’t eat it. All.Night.Long.

Seeing your child left out of the sweets-fest can be particularly gut-wrenching for parents. “In every society, food is a huge part of how you connect to people and express love,” says Dr. Ponda. “When you have a food allergy and you have to be particular about what you eat, it becomes very difficult and, in some cases, very, very dangerous.”

Hidden and not-so-hidden dangers

So what makes Halloween so risky for my son and other children with allergies? Chocolate bars often contain four of the most common allergens: Peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and milk, says Dr. Ponda. Some candy has wheat (like wafer bars) and egg in it (marshmallow and nougat varieties, in particular).  Even baked goods can spell trouble: A candy apple may be free of nuts, but if that home chef baked with walnuts recently, that could trigger a reaction in someone with a tree nut allergy.

Not to mention, it’s near impossible to read labels in the dark.  And even if you’re lucky enough to have a well-lit neighborhood, the labels don’t reveal as much as they should. There might not even be a label listing out ingredients on the individual fun-sized treat because it’s usually only on the big bag (which the trick-or-treater never sees).

This leaves many people confused and makes accidents easier to happen. Did you know the full size Hershey bar is safe for kids with peanut and tree nut allergies but the smaller “fun-sized” one is not? How would you? It’s nowhere on the label.

A word about sugar

Have you ever noticed how baking your child their favorite birthday cake or making chocolate chip pancakes feels like a way to show your love? We celebrate and mourn with sweets, from cookies and scones to pound cake and fruit baskets. We remember the smell of grandma’s peach pie and our mom’s coffee cake. Our sense of smell has been shown to have a powerful connection to memory. “People get comfort from food,” notes Diana Cusa, a clinical dietitian at Plainview Hospital.

Sugary treats tempt us in a primal way. Studies show that babies are born with a preference for sugar. Some anthropologists say that we are hardwired to prefer sweetness because this kept our ancestors nibbling on the safe, ripe fruit, and ensured they would pack in enough calories to survive long, hard winters.

The only problem? We no longer need to sugar-load. “We’re having way too much sugar,” Cusa points out. “The average American eats about 66 pounds of added sugar each year. That’s 19 and a half teaspoons each day. Women are only supposed to have six teaspoons and men nine teaspoons a day.”

“In every society, food is a huge part of how you connect to people and express love.”
Dr. Punita Ponda, associate division chief at the Division of Allergy and Immunology | Northwell Health

The anxiety factor

Sara Landwehr Stevenson, whose 4-year-old has allergies to milk, eggs, and peanuts, feels apprehensive whenever treats are doled out. “Everything involving candy from others is stressful for me,” she says. “My daughter has several food allergies and is a strong girl, but not being able to have what others can have makes her sad sometimes. It hurts my heart.”

Parents of tweens and teens feel a different sort of dread, as their kids set out alone. Sharlene says it was the tween years that made her most nervous, when her daughter wanted to go off with friends and would have an EpiPen strapped to her, buried underneath her costume. “The in-between years were the hardest for me. I spent a lot of time trailing behind them with my hand gripping my phone.”

Making Halloween a treat for all

When it comes to navigating Halloween, so much depends on the age of your children, where you live, and your own comfort with risk. Many households now participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project, meaning they give out non-edible treats (spider rings, pencils, balls) in lieu of candy.

Other ideas: Host a Halloween party at your place so that you control the treats. Or, suggests Dr. Ponda, go around to neighbors you know ahead of time and provide them with safe snacks, which they then give back to your child.

My son knows that he can’t eat anything he collects on Halloween night until we’re home (we bring safe candy for him to snack on as he goes). Later, we carefully review his stash and swap out anything unsafe or iffy, donating that candy to the troops. Other families replace the whole bunch of candy with a fresh one.

And move over Tooth Fairy, there is now “Switch Witch” who has the magical ability to replace the candy in the middle of the night with a toy the child wants. (Don’t you wish Switch Witch would go to work replacing your living room furniture?)

Finally, no matter what precautions you put in place, remember that by thinking ahead, you’re helping to make the holiday fun and safe. As Richela Fabian Morgan, whose 15-year-old son has food allergies, says about the balancing act, “I still worry. It never goes away. But we try as much as possible to give him the normal experience of just being a kid.”

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Published October 30th, 2018
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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