WASHINGTON – On Halloween night, ghouls, princesses and dragons will commandeer neighborhood sidewalks across the state and country, collecting Hershey kisses, lollipops, candy corn and chocolate bars.
For children with food allergies, diving into the candy after the night’s festivities is not an option. They must first sift through mounds of candy, read ingredient labels and set aside those things that could make them sick.
Last year, Angela Sheets got a “ton” of candy, said her mother, Jackie. After a couple of hours trolling through their Bel Air neighborhood, Angela, her mother, her father, Matt, and her older sister, Cassandra, dumped out the contents of their cache on the living room floor.
Anything in Angela’s plastic orange pumpkin made of chocolate or with peanuts was divided among her father and sister to go to school or work. All the leftovers were scrutinized.
That’s because 6-year-old Angela is allergic to milk, soy, peanuts, corn, eggs and fish. She’s also sensitive to red 40, a common food dye.
Some parents find alternative Halloween activities that exclude ‘trick or treating’ for their allergic children, but Jackie Sheets did not want Angela to miss out.
“We just decided to let her go around the neighborhood and get whatever,” Sheets said. “I want it to be fun.” Angela can have a limited number of Smarties, Starbursts and Skittles, but too many and she likely would develop a rash.
Angela is among the nation’s 3 million children with food allergies. The most common peanut, milk, egg, tree nut, shellfish, fish, soy and wheat account for about 90 percent of all allergies in the United States, according to the Fairfax, Va., based Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
Angela’s allergies first appeared when she was an infant, Sheets said. When she ate certain foods and breast fed the baby, Sheets noticed her daughter developing rashes. Drinking milk-based formulas gave the infant severe rashes; so did soy mixtures.
“Thank God I’m not crazy,” she remembered thinking when a doctor at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center told her in January 2002 why Angela likely was breaking out in rashes. Sheets discovered her child was so allergic to milk, that she can’t touch it without breaking out in an itchy, red rash.
At the Children’s Center, parents are encouraged to adhere to a strict avoidance diet of allergy-inducing foods, which is difficult with popular treats like candy and cookies, said Elizabeth Matsui, a pediatric allergist at the center.
“It sounds very simple on the face of it to avoid peanuts,” she said. But “you have to read all labels of all foods.”
Those labels, for example, identify whether an item or equipment used to produce it has come into contact with peanuts. The distinction removes many processed foods from allergic kids’ diets. Include products made with milk and eggs and suddenly the range of foods some allergic children can eat becomes even smaller.
Halloween candy is rife with products that allergic kids cannot eat. Most chocolate is made with milk comes into contact with peanuts. Many colored candies use red 40 and other food coloring that children sensitive to those chemicals have difficulty ingesting.
The diet restrictions mean some children with food allergies are left out of the “trick or treat” tradition, said Anne Munoz-Furlong, the executive director of FAAN.
As an alternative, FAAN began a Halloween food allergy awareness campaign four years ago that encourages children to dress up in costume and go door-to-door collecting coins for allergy research and education.
Last year, Munoz-Furlong said, 15,000 children participated nationwide and the organization raised $40,000.
Some families forego trick or treating, while others provide neighbors with snacks and treats to give their allergic children when they door knock on Halloween.
The Blanford family of Gambrills has allowed their 3-year-old daughter Karli, who is allergic to peanuts, to trick or treat since she was a year old. The family combs through the candy stash that same evening and decides what can be traded with other families and what can be sent with dad to work, Jen Blanford said.
Karli’s grandparents rushed her to Howard County General Hospital when the toddler was 11 months old after her face swelled and her body broke out in hives from eating a piece of a peanut butter cracker.
Her severe reaction, also called anaphylaxis, could have killed her if she had not received a shot of epinephrine in time.
While she hasn’t had any allergic reactions since then, her mother said, Karli was taught early that peanuts would make her sick. The toddler proudly points out the medic alert bracelet on her wrist which reads “anaphylaxis to peanuts and nut products, treat with EpiPen,” and shows a visitor how to inject epinephrine with a fake needle.
Epinephrine is the only drug that can combat severe allergic reactions, although other drugs are being researched, Matsui said. Antihistamines like Benadryl also work in less severe cases.
This year, Karli, will be joined on the trick or treat circuit by her sister, 17-month-old Shelby, who does not appear to have any allergies. Karli plans to be a green dragon and Shelby will be a cow.
A child’s food allergy does not have to limit them socially, said Munoz- Furlong.
“They can do anything they want to do they just have to be careful.”