Halloween can present a very scary time of year for any parent concerned about their child’s oral health. Megan Chiplock says that when her daughters go trick or treating, they come back with a pretty big haul – but she lets them enjoy as much as they want.
“We let them go at it, gorge themselves, and maybe for a few days after if they want a piece here and there,” she says. “But they really get their fill on Halloween night, and [then] it’s sort of out of their system.”
Temple University pediatric dentist Mark Helpin says that might not be such a bad idea.
“The frequency of eating candy, and other refined carbohydrates, and their stickiness, are big factors in creating the risk of caries (cavities),” he said.
Eating carbohydrates can change the pH balance of the mouth, making it more acidic, which can increase the risk of cavities. Each time candy is eaten, the acid environment in the mouth can take up to an hour to dissipate.
“So, if I eat a piece of candy now, the pH in my mouth will become acidic, and it will take 30-60 minutes for it to become normal,” said Helpin. “If I keep eating candy throughout the day, there is acid in my mouth for a much longer period of time. The longer teeth are in an acid environment, the greater the risk they will become decayed.”
Helpin, the acting chair of Pediatric Dentistry at Temple’s Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry, says that there are a number of ways parents can minimize this risk while still letting their children enjoy the holiday.
“Parents can let kids eat a bunch [of candy] now and a bunch later. But don’t let them have one piece now, then an hour later let them have another piece,” he said, adding that candy can also be dispensed as a dessert or snack.
Meals are a good time at which to have treats as dessert because the production of saliva increases, which helps to wash away acidity in the mouth. Helpin also recommends that parents have their children brush their teeth after eating candy, or if that's not possible, tell their children to rinse their mouth with water 3 or 4 times after eating, which will help reduce acidity in the mouth.
Helpin warns that substituting small bags of chips or pretzels for candy doesn't solve the cavity problem, either.
“Chips and pretzels are also carbohydrates and they also will create an acid environment that can create cavities,” he says. “These treats and snacks get stuck on your teeth, and that’s the stickiness factor,” he said.
When trick-or-treaters come to his door, Helpin likes to give out sugar-free candies, and avoids the sticky, gummy candies. Megan says her kids don’t really go for those sticky treats either.
“My three-year-old doesn’t enjoy the chewy candies,” she said. “She’s tried them but they just get stuck in her teeth.”
Ultimately, “it's not realistic to think you can tell your child you can't have candy, cookies, cakes, or other treats,” says Helpin. “Those are the things most people enjoy—and we want our kids to enjoy life.”