Halloween Happenings and IBD: Advice from GI’s and parents of pediatrics

Halloween is extra scary this year for all the wrong reasons. It’s especially challenging for children with IBD who are immunocompromised. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s I share input and advice from several gastroenterologists about everything from trick-or-treating to flu season, along with the game plan four IBD families have in place for the holiday. Much like anything with this pandemic, we’re trying to do the best we can to live, while also staying safe.

As an IBD mom myself, I’m still conflicted about how best to celebrate Halloween with my kids this year. We have their costumes, and the house is decorated festively, but I’m extremely hesitant to allow my 3.5-year-old son to get candy from strangers in the middle of a pandemic. Our game plan is to hang out with my sister-in-law’s family as we do every year. I’ve been inspired by how fellow IBD families are creatively adapting and making adjustments to celebrate. I think you will be, too.

Nicole’s daughter Addy is 15 and has Crohn’s disease. She’s on Humira. Nicole said her family already had a little “pow wow” to discuss Halloween and how it was going to be this year. They’ve decided to celebrate over the span of two days by doing the following:

  • Making Halloween Gingerbread houses
  • Decorating Halloween Cookies
  • Having a glow in the dark scavenger hunt (The lights in the house will be out, the kids will have glow sticks/flashlights and they will have to use clues to find their bags of Halloween décor. With the bags of décor, each child will create a mini haunted house in their bedroom and go “trick or treating” to the different bedrooms and experience their siblings’ haunted house.
  • On Halloween night Nicole is going to make a Halloween-themed dinner
  • The family will watch Blair Witch Project

Nicole says being immunocompromised through COVID has been incredibly challenging for her daughter. She says they are trying to balance everything so that Addy doesn’t fully resent her disease.

“She sees that her friends are hanging out together, not social distancing, and not getting sick. We have had many moments filled with tears and frustration and we are doing the best we can to try and offer social interactions in the safest ways. But, she is a teen…and the efforts are hardly enough. Halloween this year is something my kids are all excited about, but it’s the day-to-day stuff that is most challenging through the pandemic.”

Ebony’s 14-year-old son, Jamar, is on Remicade infusions to manage his Crohn’s disease. Jamar was diagnosed with IBD when he was nine. He’s now a freshman in high school and attending school daily in-person for half a day with the hopes of making the basketball team.

“Even though Jamar is attending school, we decided as a family that we are not going to do anything for Halloween this year. We also plan to celebrate the holidays at home, to keep on the safe side. Since he was diagnosed with IBD and expressed sadness that he didn’t understand why he had to have this illness, I’ve explained to him that we’ll get through this together and that I’ll always support him—and that hasn’t changed through this pandemic,” said Ebony.

Paulina’s nine-year-old son, Grayson, also has Crohn’s. He’s on Pentasa, Entocort, and Omeprazole to manage it. She says her family plans to dress up in costumes as usual. Grayson is going to be Bowser from Super Mario Brothers. They have tickets for a drive through Halloween event at the community center by their home in California. Paulina says even though they have to stay in the car this year, Grayson and his sister are still excited to see all the decorations and participate in the scavenger hunt.

“We also plan on faux trick or treating, where we still go out and walk around our neighborhood and enjoy spotting cool decorations, BUT I will bring a bag of goodies and little prizes. For every few houses we walk by, they’ll get a surprise goodie put into their bag. Grayson will be able to go through his “loot” once we’re back home. I’m sure we’ll watch Nightmare Before Christmas (it’s a family favorite). Halloween falls on a Saturday and on a full moon…how could we possibly miss the nightly walk?”

Paulina says Grayson often feels frustrated when the topic of “being immunocompromised” comes up, but that he understands they are being overly cautious for his own health and that of others.

Cindy’s 10-year-old daughter, Jean, has Crohn’s disease and is on weekly Humira injections. She says Jean is in that interesting phase of childhood where she still kind of wants to go trick-or-treating, but also feels like she’s outgrowing it or too cool for that. This year, Jean is going to attend a small outdoor get-together on Halloween night with four classmates. It’s important to note—Jean has been attending 5th grade—in-person, five days a week since August.

“The kids will make s’mores and pizza and watch a spooky kid movie on an outdoor screen. Because she and her friends are in the same classroom “pod” and she spends more waking hours with these classmates than she does in our own home, we are accepting of her celebrating with them.”

Cindy says Jean’s friends and their families have been extremely accommodating to her immunocompromised status throughout the pandemic.

“When she has visited their homes or on limited occasions shared a carpool, these families have been careful to pursue a combination of exclusive outdoor time, mask-wearing, windows down on car rides, pre-packaged or restaurant carry-out snacks and meals, and having freshly cleaned bathrooms dedicated for guests’ use. Other parents proactively talk through risk mitigation and I couldn’t appreciate them more for their thoughtfulness. Immunocompromised or not, we all share similar concerns during COVID.”

Cindy went on to say she thinks Jean will trick-or-treat with her five-year-old brother at a few of their next door neighbors’ houses. They live in Indianapolis and trick-or-treating is “not recommended” by the county health department there, but she expects many of her neighbors will still be handing out candy.

“I also intend to hand out candy from our driveway, so long as trick or treaters or their parents are wearing face masks. This follows our family’s general approach on life during COVID: we are more concerned about “shared air” than we are about surfaces. We believe (and science indicates) surface infection can be largely addressed through handwashing. Because trick or treating can occur in outdoor spaces, we feel somewhat comfortable with that – balanced with the fact that while we are extremely concerned about COVID and have taken all precautions since March – we strive for an ounce of normalcy. There are enough parts of Jean’s life that are not typical due to living with Crohn’s Disease – whenever we can control any part of her life feeling “normal” we make every effort to do so. This was the case before COVID and will remain so afterward.”

Cindy says she reminds her daughter they are doing everything they can to protect her health, while also doing their best to ensure Jean can pursue all the parts of her life that bring her joy. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, and as an adult with IBD, my hat truly goes off to parents trying to navigate these unforeseen times for their children.

What Gastroenterologists are recommending for Halloween and beyond

Dr Miguel Regueiro, M.D., Chair, Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, at the Cleveland Clinic says he thinks it’s important for people to “live” and be with family and friends. He has a few tips and tricks (or treats!). (His joke, I can’t take credit!)

“For outside events or walking the neighborhood, this is probably the safest as we are learning that open air events are the least likely for transmission of COVID. At the same time, I would still practice wearing masks, social distancing, and practicing good handwashing. Avoid personal contact, shaking hands, hugging, etc.”

For those distributing candy, Dr. Regueiro says it would be prudent to wear gloves (nitrile gloves or similar) to avoid directly touching the candy. Out of abundance of caution, he said it would be reasonable to also wear gloves to unwrap the candy.

“Regarding trick or treating in malls or confined spaces, this would be less optimal than open air. Masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene is a must. Parties or gatherings in houses should follow the guidance of local health advice. Some parts of the country may have a much lower rate of COVID. Overall, though, I would avoid close gatherings in enclosed spaces, which means avoiding these parties, especially if immunocompromised.”

Dr. Regueiro wants to mention that the IBD Secure Registry is finding that IBD patients on immunosuppressive agents/biologics are NOT at increased risk of contracting COVID. He says while this news can be comforting, it may also be that those with IBD on these types of medications have been extra cautious.

“Everyone should get the flu shot. Getting influenza may mimic symptoms of COVID, and influenza is also a very serious virus. We think getting influenza and COVID could be even more dangerous. Getting plenty of sleep, staying well hydrated, eating healthy, and exercising are also important for the immune system and health. Don’t let yourself get run down.”

Dr. Anil Balani, M.D., Director, Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program for Capital Health Center for Digestive Health in New Jersey does not recommend indoor Halloween parties either, even if kids and parents are wearing masks (whether it’s part of the costume or a regular mask).

“With indoor settings it is hard to control the ventilation settings which could potentially increase the risk of airborne transmission, and furthermore many kids may find it difficult to breath indoors with a mask on.”

Dr. Balani says trick or treating, if it’s limited to outside, is probably ok. Although kids should wear masks when doing so.

“Children can trick or treat with their parents or siblings instead of a group of large friends, unless they are with a small group of friends that are in their “pods,” or groups of friends whose parents have been very careful with all COVID related precautions the entire time. Parents of immune compromised kids can also pick up the treats for the kids.”

Along with maintaining proper handwashing and social distancing precautions, Dr. Balani advises everyone to get the flu shot, unless there are medical contradictions. He recommends taking a healthy dose of vitamins including Vitamin C and zinc and continue to stay on top of all your IBD medical care to keep your disease managed and under control the best you can.

“The SECURE-IBD registry has shown us that people who are in the midst of an IBD flare are at high risk for complications from COVID should they contract the virus. On the other hand, if one is in remission, they are likely to have a better outcome from the virus, regardless of which IBD medical therapy they are on.”

When it comes to celebrating Halloween with his own family Dr. Balani and his wife have a few tricks up their sleeves. Instead of typical door to door trick or treating, they plan to set up an outdoor movie night with Halloween-themed movies, have an outdoor candy/treat hung similar to an Easter egg hunt with family and/or a close knit group of friends, host an outdoor pumpkin carving party, and have a backyard costume/glow dance party.

And don’t feel like you need to throw out your kids’ Halloween candy! Studies suggest that the SARS-COV2 virus may not be infectious on surfaces for too long. If there are doubts or concerns, Dr. Balani recommends leaving the candy out for a few days to allow any virus particles to die. Parents can also open the wrappers for their kids.

Dr. Maria Oliva-Hemker, M.D., Director, Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Johns Hopkins suggests for families to look for other creative ways of celebrating Halloween this year, regardless of whether a child has IBD or not.

She recommends:

  • Virtual costume parties
  • Halloween movie or craft night
  • Making special Halloween-themed treats at home
  • Outdoor costume parades where physical distancing is possible
  • Checking to see if the local zoo or other outdoor venues in the area are sponsoring a safe, community event, following social distance guidelines.

“Those who hand out treats on Halloween will hopefully wear face coverings and model safe behaviors. If you are trick or treating, consider going to a smaller number of homes compared to past years,” said Dr. Oliva-Hemker.

Prior to making Halloween plans, Dr. Oliva-Hemker says families should be aware of the levels of COVID cases in their communities, as well as where their family members are coming from.

“For example, if they are coming in, or coming from a hot zone, they may want to consider holding a virtual event or be absolutely sure that they follow known guidelines for safety (masks, handwashing, physical distancing).”

She also says she can’t stress enough that this virus can be controlled in our society—other countries have been able to get a handle on things by people following public health guidelines.

“The virus does not know your political, religious or other affiliation—as a physician my hope is that our country pays more attention to what reputable scientists and public health experts are telling us. Taking care of this virus will also get the country back on track economically.”

Handling Halloween When You’re an Immunocompromised Parent

Mom (and dad!) guilt throughout this pandemic has reared its ugly head a few times especially if you live with a chronic illness and are immunocompromised. The last thing I want is for my kids to miss out on fun and experiences because of my health condition.

Dr. Harry Thomas, M.D., Austin Gastroenterology, says, “For parents with IBD, taking children trick-or-treating outdoors – while maintaining social distance, wearing face coverings, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding large gatherings – is, in my opinion, a reasonable option, provided they are not on steroids. However, I would recommend avoiding indoor gatherings, especially without masks, given the rising case numbers in many areas now.”

Along with receiving the flu shot, Dr. Thomas recommends IBD parents to talk with their IBD provider about the two pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccines, Pneumovax and Prevnar 13.

Navigating the upcoming holiday season in November and December

Halloween is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the holiday season. There’s no doubt this will be an extremely hard time for us all.

“This is normally a time to celebrate with friends and family. But with the COVID pandemic, unfortunately things cannot be the same. This will be especially difficult for those of us living in the cooler climates where the tendency is to go indoors. For any potential indoor gatherings, it would be ideal to limit the number of people to allow safe social distancing. I would encourage families that are planning on staying together multiple days to consider getting tested for COVID before getting together,” said Dr. Balani. 

My family calls me “Sergeant COVID”: Navigating life while being high-risk, as the world reopens

I’m preparing to feel like the bad guy in the months ahead. My family has already jokingly called me “Sergeant COVID”.  As an IBD mom who is immunocompromised, the decisions I make as the world starts to reopen may step on some toes. I’ve always been one to struggle with confrontation and take it upon myself to be a people-pleaser, which isn’t always a good thing. But this. This is different. I know there will be times I need to speak up and say no.

While out on a walk with my family in our neighborhood this week, we approached a house with two moms sitting side by side, a play date was going down.

sophiawalk15months

Daily walks and getting fresh air help to keep us sane!

Several kids ran around the yard. An SUV parked next to the two moms with their thermoses. I turned to my husband when I spotted them and said, “well there’s a playdate.” He laughed and said, “Are you not going to allow Reid and Sophia to see anyone for a year?”

Well, that’s a good question my friends. Who knows what these next few months will bring, and as someone who is immunocompromised from my biologic medication, that may need to be the reality if things don’t make a drastic turnaround for the better as far as number of cases and deaths.

I want to be together with my friends and family as much as the next person

I also understand the risk associated with getting together with people who have not taken social distancing and quarantine as strictly as my family has. I haven’t stayed in my house and neighborhood since March 12th and only ventured to the grocery store and for bloodwork once, to throw those efforts out the window. I haven’t cooked every meal for my family and refrained from ordering take out for nothing.

baking

Trying lots of new recipes has been a great distraction.

The moment I let my guard down before I feel comfortable, the moment I put myself or my family at risk.

As someone who’s worried about sickness from germs and flare-ups for years, I see this pandemic through a different lens than many. Anyone in the IBD community who is on immunosuppressive medication has a different perspective. I’m already anxious about having to justify my decisions to stay home as life slowly starts getting back to a new normal for everyone. But until I feel safe, we’ll be taking all the precautions.

I wonder just as much as the next person in the chronic illness community how to navigate these difficult conversations with well-meaning and otherwise “healthy” friends and family. When I hear about people getting together indoors, going for walks with people outside their nuclear family, having people over for BBQs, even being essential workers (which I know can’t be helped)—I know the date I’ll see those friends and family just gets pushed further away.

When things calm down, the first people my kids and I will see indoors, will be my parents, who have practiced strict social distancing and haven’t ventured out for anything but groceries. If they were out and about and seeing others, that wouldn’t be the case.

We all need to do what we feel comfortable with and worry less about hurting someone’s feelings or getting a little backlash for our decisions. Luckily, my husband Bobby has been extremely understanding and supportive and backs me up on how I feel. IMG-1529

The best thing we can do is over-communicate. Talk openly about life as someone who is immunocompromised and what recommendations and parameters around social distancing your care team has shared with you. By talking about what your doctor has told you, it validates your worries and fears.

It’s ok to feel disappointed and frustrated. Not everyone has been or will take social distancing and quarantining as seriously as you do. Focus on what you can control—and that is your actions and that of your families. You are doing all that you can to stay safe, and that’s what matters. I’ve had moments where I was physically shaking and so overwhelmed by emotions throughout these past few weeks—because of the actions of others. You see it on social media—the families getting together with several people for Easter, and birthdays, and Mother’s Day. People taking trips on airplanes. Social distancing block parties where people are all standing super close to one another. It’s truly mind-boggling and hard not be judgmental from my vantage point. If you need to cut down on social media or cut ties temporarily with those who you believe are acting irresponsibility, do what you need to do for your mental health and well-being.

We had originally planned to drop off my mother-in-law’s Mother’s Day gifts on the front porch and stay in our car, but my in-laws set up patio furniture on opposite sides of their large patio and we were able to hang out outside 20+ feet apart to exchange presents. It was nice to finally see one another from afar vs. through a window.

Constantly keep your finger on the pulse of research. There are so many physicians in the IBD community truthfully working around the clock to bring patients like us the latest and newest information about COVID-19 as it relates to Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Educate yourself on factual, research-based information. Follow top GI doctors on Twitter. Stay in touch with your care team and don’t hesitate to ask questions. Tune in for Facebook Lives and Twitter Chats from IBD Social Circle, IBD Moms, and many other great groups.

Lean on the patient community. Prior to the pandemic, life with a chronic illness already made us feel a bit like outsiders. IMG-1409Now more than ever, we’re being labeled as the “sickly”, the “disposable”, the “weak”, the list goes on. COVID-19 is not JUST about the elderly and immunocompromised, this is about everyone. As patients we have a unique perspective and understanding about the struggles we face daily and what it’s like to go through this challenging time. Connect with fellow patients online who get your reality, your emotion, and the whirlwind of going up against this invisible bogeyman. To refrain from social media, you can download awesome free apps like Gali Health and IBD Healthline, with helpful articles, community conversations, and chats by patients, for patients.

Your FOMO is nothing new. Chances are throughout your patient journey you’ve had to miss out on plans or cancel last minute. Will it be hard when the whole family or your group of friends are getting together, and you tell them you won’t be joining for the big “post-quarantine” reunion? YES. Of course. At the same time, you’ll probably feel comforted not having to worry if so and so is asymptomatic and waiting on pins and needles for two weeks to see if you’re in the clear.

I look so forward to the day when my family and I can reunite with those we love and miss dearly. I just ask that people have understanding, patience, and empathy for those like myself, who will be very fearful to return to life as we used to know it…if that will ever be. Maybe put on the kid gloves and imagine walking in our shoes before you say something that you can never take back.