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Food Allergies

Kissing and Allergic Teens

Teenagers with allergies learn to ask questions before they move in for a kiss.
After all, there’s nothing like a sudden reaction to spoil the mood.

These are prime dating years for 16-year-old Lisa Gordon, an outgoing Grade 11 student from a northern suburb of Toronto. But long before Lisa gets to the first kiss, she has to ask a few questions that are not likely to be written into any romantic plot: Did you eat any peanuts today? Or shellfish? Or coconuts? What about pecans or walnuts? “If we haven’t talked about it, there’s no kiss,” says Lisa. “I wouldn’t want him not to know, and then something terrible happens.”

No longer can those first few fumbled kisses just happen by chance or circumstance. It is a new world for Lisa and other teenagers with food allergies who are entering the dating arena, and that world can be dangerous. A kiss, even a careful peck on the cheek, can cause an allergic reaction or even a potentially fatal anaphylactic attack.

It was long believed that allergic reactions from kissing were exceedingly rare. But then, in 2002, Dr. Rosemary Hallett and her colleagues at the University of California at Davis discovered that kissing was far more hazardous for people allergic to nuts and seeds than doctors had thought.

Hallett and her fellow researchers sent out a general questionnaire to 379 individuals with allergies to nuts and seeds, or parents of children with those allergies. Twenty people who completed the survey, or 5.3 per cent, volunteered reports of reactions after kissing.

When Hallett tracked down 17 of them, she found they all had symptoms of itching and swelling in the area kissed within a minute after the contact. Four of them had also started wheezing.

There was one child who nearly died. He was, Hallett wrote, “kissed on the cheek by his mother right after she tasted pea soup on the stove, and a large wheal immediately developed at the exact site of the kiss.” The child then flushed and started wheezing, and he was whisked to a hospital emergency department, where he was given a shot of epinephrine.

In the findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers noted that four people suffered reactions even though their partners had brushed their teeth. What’s more, Hallett suspected the percentage of people suffering post-kiss reactions might be far higher than 5 per cent, because the 20 people in the survey volunteered their information as opposed to being asked directly.

Her conclusion: “Since one-third of our subjects had reactions while dating, teenagers and young adults in particular need to be informed about this mode of exposure to allergens; patients of dating age who have severe food allergies may need extra encouragement to tell friends about it.”

Next: Learning to Speak Up About Allergies

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.