A dentist's five tricks for enjoying Halloween treats

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photoDr. Larry Kuhl, senior dental consultant at Delta Dental/Washington Dental Service.

As fall sets in, football is in full swing, leaves have begun to change colors and kids eagerly pick out Halloween costumes in anticipation of bags of sugary candy. While little ghosts and goblins look forward to this haunted holiday, many parents may be concerned about the oral health hazards associated with Halloween.

However, parents shouldn’t dread this spooky season. Halloween can actually provide children an opportunity to enjoy treats, while learning good oral health habits for the rest of the year – and beyond. By following the five tips outlined below, parents can help prevent cavities for little trick-or-treaters while instilling lessons for proper life-long oral health habits:

  1. Choose wisely. Not all candy is equally scary. Encourage kids to eat candy that melts quickly and can be eaten easily - even better if it’s made with Xylitol, a natural sweetener that prevents bacteria from producing acids that cause tooth decay. Try to avoid gooey and chewy candy, like caramels, that linger on the teeth and allow the bacteria in the mouth to produce more acid, which causes tooth decay. After enjoying any sugary treat, encourage kids to brush their teeth or at least swish with water, which lessens the amount of time sugar stays in contact with teeth. Offer a new, brightly-colored toothbrush as a final Halloween “goodie.”
  2. Make a secret stash. Don’t leave candy around the house after Halloween. Store it in a hidden place out of kids’ reach, or find a dentist or dental organization with a candy buyback program that will actually pay for the candy to be turned into their office.
  3. Avoid grazing. Don’t allow unsupervised grazing on candy, which lengthens the time sugars are in contact with tooth enamel. Instead, consider providing a treat with or after a meal, followed by a thorough tooth-brushing or at least a glass of water to help wash away the sugar and neutralize the acid. Alternatively, give them sugar-free gum, which will help stimulate saliva flow that also neutralizes acid.
  4. Set a time limit on the treats. Time is of the essence when it comes to teeth and sugar. If not removed by brushing, swishing, or some other method, sugar from any source like sodas, regular gum, mints, cough drops, etc., in the mouth can increase the likelihood of cavities. Stock up on candy (the non sticky kind) for trick-or-treaters as close to Halloween as possible to avoid the temptation for children (and adults) to get a head start on the splurge. Get rid of the post-Halloween stash as soon as possible.
  5. Eat this, not that. Try to ensure children eat a good, hearty meal prior to trick-or-treating, so there will be less temptation to gorge on candy.

Too much sugar, and its effect on oral and overall general health, doesn’t have to be the scariest part of Halloween or any other part of the year. Regardless of the season, always ensure that children’s teeth are effectively cleaned by brushing with fluoridated toothpaste and flossing every day. Talk to your child’s dentist about dental sealants and fluoride varnishes as preventive measures to help protect teeth year-round. For more dental health tips about keeping kids’ teeth healthy during and after the Halloween season, visit www.trickytreats.org.

Dr. Larry Kuhl is a senior dental consultant at Delta Dental/Washington Dental Service, Washington state’s largest provider of dental benefits. Dr. Kuhl has more than 40 years of experience in the dental profession, including 25 years in the Navy Dental Corps—where he served as the commanding officer for two Naval dental centers—and four years on the White House Presidential Support Team, providing direct dental care to two U.S. presidents and their staffs. He has been a part-time affiliate instructor at the University of Washington Dental School for the last 10 years and is a Fellow in both the American College of Dentists and the International College of Dentists.