By Jennifer LaRue Huget

Flu shots

There’s lots of good news on the flu-shot front this year. Starting with the needle: It’s now “shallower,” says Jeff Dimond, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and delivers the vaccine under the skin rather than into the muscle. This might make it less painful for some, especially those whose fear of the pain intensifies with the size of the needle.

Other good news: This year’s vaccine seems to be a good match for the strains of influenza that are circulating so far, Dimond says. And the vaccine appears to be in plentiful supply, with 166 million doses manufactured. That includes doses to be administered via a nasal spray, which is available for people ages 49 and under.

The standard vaccine is made with killed virus, and the nasal spray is made from live, attenuated virus. The spray is as effective as the shot; both are safe, and neither can give you the flu, Dimond says.

The CDC urges everyone age 6 months and up to get vaccinated. Children younger than 9 need two doses to fully protect against influenza. There’s a separate, more potent version for people older than 65, he adds, noting that older people’s weakened immune systems may not develop a robust enough response to the standard vaccine to adequately protect them.

And even if you were vaccinated last year, that doesn’t mean you should skip the shot this year. Dimond notes that the vaccine’s efficacy wanes over time and offers protection for only eight or nine months.

Halloween hazards

Parents tend to worry about their little witches and ghouls getting tainted candy in their trick-or-treat bags. But that should really be the least of their Halloween safety concerns, says Garry Gardner, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention.

→ Pedestrian and auto safety top Gardner’s list of Halloween hazards. “Young kids get excited and run from house to house, and drivers might not see them,” especially if they are wearing dark clothing, Gardner says.

Gardner urges parents to emphasize that the rules for crossing the street don’t change on Halloween: Remind kids to “cross at the corner and to look to the left, to the right, and to the left again” before crossing. Younger children should hold a grown-up’s hand when crossing.

→ Porch decorations can pose many risks to trick-or-treaters also, Gardner says. Clear wet leaves from steps and make sure the entranceway isn’t slippery. Remove decorations that kids might trip over, and secure candle-lit jack-o’-lanterns on a safe, steady base and out of the pathway of kids.

Be careful when selecting costumes. Avoid those with belts and sashes that can get caught on things or wrap around the neck, Gardner suggests. “For younger kids, it’s better to decorate or paint their faces than to have them wear a mask,” he says. Gardner remembers wearing a lion mask when he was a child that blocked his vision. “I got out of the car and ran right into a tree, knocked myself out,” he says.

As for that candy, Gardner is more worried about too much candy than tainted candy. Of course, a parent should carefully examine each piece for signs that it might have been tampered with. Beyond that, he suggests rationing candy so the child doesn’t eat it all at once. “Eating too much is a big problem,” he says.

Peanut-free treats

Which Halloween candies are safe for peanut-allergic trick-or-treaters? Michael Pistiner, a pediatric allergist at Children’s Hospital Boston, says that rather than rely on a list of “safe” treats, parents of kids with peanut allergies (and the kids themselves, when they’re old enough) should “always read the labels. Every time. Even if it’s a food your child has always eaten with no problem.”

Peanuts are among the eight common allergens that the federal government requires manufacturers to list on package labels, either in the ingredient list or a separate statement on the package.

Allergic trick-or-treaters should carry an epinephrine injection pen and the “allergy action plan” they’ve worked out with their physicians. Young kids should be accompanied by a grown-up familiar with that plan. Other good ideas: A flashlight, wipes for cleaning hands and a cellphone for emergencies. Although Pistiner wouldn’t give a list of safe candies, he says, “I can promise that Snickers bars are not going to work.”

Produce of the month: Pumpkin

Those bright orange squashes aren’t just for decoration. Pumpkins are an excellent sources of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and B6, folate, potassium and iron, says registered dietitian Keri Glassman. A cup of plain steamed, mashed pumpkin has about 50 calories.

“Pumpkins are a great seasonal vegetable similar to winter squash,” Glassman says. “They can be roasted, used in soups, savory dishes, salads or desserts.” Though perfectly edible, pumpkins that are used for jack-o’-lanterns aren’t the best for cooking with. Other varieties better suited for food, such as sugar and pie pumpkins, are also in peak season this month. And if you’d rather skip the hassle of cutting and cooking pumpkin, unsweetened, canned pumpkin is just as nutritious, Glassman says.

Here are some of Glassman’s tips for using pumpkin:

→Add pureed pumpkin to plain yogurt with cinnamon or to oatmeal with cinnamon and walnuts.

→Toss roasted pumpkin pieces into any salad.

→Mash pumpkin with cauliflower as a substitute for mashed potatoes.

→Serve roasted pumpkin as a simple side dish instead of sweet potato.

And don’t forget the seeds, as they make for a great snack, Glassman says. “Like nuts, they are a source of healthy fats and protein,” she says. “They are also packed with minerals” such as magnesium, zinc and iron. Rinse and drain them, discarding the stringy stuff, and spread them on a baking sheet. Add salt or other seasonings and roast at 300 degrees until golden brown, shaking the tray or stirring the seeds every few minutes to avoid burning. One ounce (about 85 seeds) has about 125 calories.

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