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On Halloween, keeping kids safe isn't tricky

The best safety advice for parents this Halloween, experts say, is the same as at any other time of the year: Use common sense, don't leave children alone and inspect all treats.

"It's the same basic common sense you use year 'round," said Emily O'Hara, programs manager of the North Central Florida Safety Council in Gainesville. "They need to take their stuff home and let their parents go through it before eating any of the candy. If they found some candy on the way home any other time of the year, their parents would do the same thing and check it first, right?"

O'Hara said this year the North Central Florida Safety Council is stressing safety for young trick-or-treaters who will be going door-to-door in the dark Friday night.

"This year we're concentrating on pedestrian safety," O'Hara said. "Because it's dark and when they're trick-or-treating they forget the basics like looking both ways before crossing the street."

O'Hara reminds parents to put reflective material on their children's' costumes.

"A lot of the costumes have dark clothing," she said. "They need to be looking very carefully for cars; the drivers may just not see the kids out there."

The most important Halloween tip, O'Hara said, is to make sure children stay with a parent.

"Parental guidance is the ideal," she said. "Ideally, you should never have kids out without their parents. But an 11-year-old or 12-year-old might get upset at that."

Older children should travel in groups, O'Hara said. Parents should map out a route ahead of time with their children and set a curfew. If the children miss the curfew, then parents can retrace their children's path.

And, of course, after trick-or-treating is over, parents need to inspect their children's booty.

"That takes common sense, too," O'Hara said. "You wouldn't want to be eating any unwrapped candy. If it's not checked by your parents, don't eat it."

That policy was used at the Renaissance Center on Wednesday, when a woman who didn't identify herself dropped off a basket of apples and lollipops decorated like ghosts.

After a quick check to be sure there was nothing wrong with the treats, officials put them out in the office, school resource officer Phil Royal said.

This year poses a new problem for trick-or-treaters: mosquito-borne St. Louis encephalitis. Citrus is not among the Florida counties under an encephalitis alert, but health officials have urged caution anyway.

The Florida Department of Health says parents and children should wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, shoes and socks outdoors; parents should make sure their children are covered as much as possible by their costumes; parents should minimize children's outdoor activities; and everyone should use mosquito repellent while trick-or-treating.

Fever, headache, stiff neck, dizziness, weakness and confusion are all symptoms of St. Louis encephalitis. The most serious cases end in swelling of the brain, coma and death.

The Sheriff's Office suggests that parents consider alternatives to trick-or-treating, such as neighborhood parties.

The Sheriff's Office also advises parents to avoid dressing their children in flammable costumes, avoid props made of hard plastic or wood and avoid strangers. Also, the Sheriff's Office recommends limiting trick-or-treating to daylight hours.

_ Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.