Washington — What if you couldn't eat a Hershey's bar, a frozen yogurt cone, a fried shrimp or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?
Eating one bite of any of those things would make Caroline Crawford, 9, of Bethesda really sick. She is allergic to nuts, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products.
Caroline found out two years ago just how sick she would get when she accidentally took a sip of her brother's milk, thinking she was reaching for her glass of safe-to-drink rice milk.
"I started feeling bad - my stomach was queasy, I got hives, my throat started closing. It was really scary," Caroline said. "Ever been pushed under water? It feels like that."
Caroline's mom gave her a shot of medicine using a small needle called an EpiPen and rushed her to the hospital, where she got better.
But kids with food allergies don't always have their parents nearby, so Caroline - and the 3 million other kids under 18 with food allergies in the United States - have to learn to watch out for themselves. The symptoms Caroline experienced (a severe allergic reaction) can cause them to become seriously ill or even die if they don't get the right medical treatment.
Check and doublecheck
"You never get a day off from food allergies," said Kate Chiavetta, 10, of Orchard Park, N.Y. She is allergic to milk and eggs and keeps an EpiPen with her "until I go to bed at night."
Even a tiny amount of the wrong food can trigger a reaction. Kate had one at ballet class once and believes it came from a smudge of cheesy pizza grease that someone in the previous class left on the ballet barre.
Kids with food allergies have to read the ingredients on labels very carefully: Cookies might contain peanut oil, a candy bar might have milk in it. Instead of eating in restaurants when they travel, Caroline's family brings coolers with safe-to-eat food, including her mom's homemade bread and mayonnaise.
Kate and Caroline, along with 74 other kids with food allergies, were in Washington recently asking members of the House of Representatives to pass a bill that would set national guidelines for how schools keep kids with food allergies safe. The rules, which schools could adopt voluntarily, would spell out who would be trained to use EpiPens (nurses, teachers, secretaries) and the best way to protect kids in the cafeteria.
The peanut-free table
Food allergy problems pop up at schools all the time, especially when it comes to classroom snacks for birthdays and other occasions. Some parents ask the class to bring safe snacks, others just offer to do it themselves. Kate's approach is to "just bring my own cake to eat."
As kids get older, they learn to manage their allergies on their own, especially at lunch.
Bannockburn Elementary in Bethesda, Md., like many schools, has a peanut-free table, where Caroline often sits. Friends with non-peanutty lunches can join her, but when they don't, she steers clear of the table.
"It's sort of lonely sitting there by yourself," she said. But sitting at regular tables can be tricky. If a kid has something you can't be around, do you ask that person to move, or do you move?