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. 

Taking on Crohn’s to Get My Life Back on Track

This post was sponsored by AbbVie Inc. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own.

Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week is December 1-7. If you have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, get tips from gastroenterologist Dr. Corey Siegel, a Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis expert, by visiting the online Expert Advice Tool before your next trip to the doctor’s office.

The gnawing abdominal pain. The frequent trips to the bathroom. The fatigue that hit me like a ton of bricks. It all became my “normal” the first few years following my diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in July 2005. During that time, I did everything I could to put a smile on my face as I reported the news on television stations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. While I loved sharing other peoples’ stories, I never wanted my own struggles to be uncovered while I was in the spotlight.

I am one of approximately 700,000 people in the United States affected by Crohn’s. Once I left the news desk in 2014, I felt it was the perfect time for me to share my struggles and become a vocal advocate. Rather than keep my story in the shadows, now, I share my journey proudly with hopes of helping and inspiring others as an IBD patient advocate and blogger.

Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week (December 1-7) is a time to educate others about IBD and empower those who may be struggling with their disease. It’s a time for patients and caregivers to speak up and use their voices to show that IBD doesn’t need to hold you back from experiencing all that life has to offer. It doesn’t need to prevent you from accomplishing your dreams. It doesn’t need to isolate you from enjoying a full quality of life. That being said—it takes effort on your part to listen to your body, recognize the symptoms and manage them accordingly with your health care team.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) characterized by inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It can affect any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus, and is not contagious or caused by food. IBD is a progressive disease, which means it can get worse over time if you are not proactively managing it. It’s also an invisible illness – I look like everybody else, no matter how I’m feeling on the inside. Those with IBD often internalize their struggles and keep their pain to themselves. It’s as if an inner conversation begins with every meal or beverage, moment of stress or excitement and twinge of pain.

In July 2008, almost three years to the day following my initial diagnosis, I found myself dealing with Crohn’s symptoms spiraling out of control. I was the morning anchor for ‘Wake Up Wisconsin.’ Deep down, I knew something wasn’t right. I was headed home to Chicago to celebrate the Fourth of July with family. I ended up being hospitalized over the holiday with an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. I watched the fireworks reflect off my hospital room window with my mom. I felt broken and exhausted by yet another setback.

My gastroenterologist entered the room and talked candidly with me about the need to change my treatment plan to minimize the progression of my Crohn’s. While it was a daunting and emotional conversation, it’s a conversation that changed my life as a young woman with Crohn’s. I had my whole future ahead of me. I knew I needed to make changes and get my life back on track.

I’m here to tell you that despite my diagnosis of Crohn’s at age 21, I was still able to accomplish it all. The first decade of my disease, I worked full-time in the television business and spent time at a public affairs firm. I fell in love with an amazing man who sees me for so much more than my disease. We got married in 2016. We have a healthy toddler and we’re expecting a baby in 2019.

Crohn’s has shaped my perspective and shown me the strength I possess within. It’s taught me to slow down and listen to my body and to appreciate the beauty of a ‘feel good’ day. My IBD journey has been one of highs and lows, smiles and tears, and everything in between. I wear my IBD diagnosis as a badge of honor because it’s something that has tested my strength and perseverance, but it hasn’t robbed me from becoming all I want to be.

If you have Crohn’s, it’s important to work with your doctor (sooner rather than later) to create a monitoring and treatment plan focused on long-term success and minimizing disease progression. Prepare for your next doctor’s visit with the help of gastroenterologist Dr. Corey Siegel and the online Expert Advice Tool.

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Disclosure: This post was sponsored by AbbVie Inc., a biopharmaceutical company, and should not be construed to constitute medical advice. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own. I am not a medical professional and am not qualified to give medical advice. Please talk with your doctor about your individual medical situation.