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.”
For Lisa, this is easy. “I tell people whenever I make new friends,” says the extroverted teenager. “I just put it out there.” In Grade 9, for instance, Lisa met a boy from Barrie, Ontario, during a choir exchange. On the first day they were sitting with friends in the school cafeteria and Lisa was eating a rhubarb pie. “We were joking about it and it just came up. I said there aren’t many desserts that I can eat and I launched into my spiel.”
Then Lisa grew closer to Michael. One day he asked Lisa a question: If you smell nuts, would you have a reaction? Lisa leapt at the opportunity: “The allergen has to get into my body, either through food or by kissing someone.” Not long after, Michael asked Lisa out. She asked if he remembered what she had said about her allergies. “No kissing if I’ve eaten bad stuff, so I won’t,” he replied.
They kissed that night, and again over the next couple of months. Michael wouldn’t eat nuts either the day he was to see Lisa or the day before. He didn’t take any chances. “He’d brush his teeth five times a day, and five times the day before,” she says. The relationship ended after a couple of months, but Lisa feels optimistic about her dating life: “I can talk to anybody,” she says. “If I don’t feel comfortable, I won’t do anything, and I have the will power to pull it off.”
For the parent, dealing with an allergic teenager entering the dating world can be nerve-racking. Most deaths caused by reactions to food happen to people between 10 and 19 – a coming of age period when kids fear an allergy will prevent them from fitting in, according to a survey conducted by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Communication is key: “You have to know your teen,” says Beth Goldstein, a social worker whose 17-year-old son is allergic to peanuts.
Beth’s son, Ben, is so exquisitely sensitive to peanuts that she believes he once had a reaction from bits of peanut shell stuck to his shoes after a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. A couple of days after the game, Ben put on his shoes just before popping an allergy pill. He promptly threw up, his usual reaction to small amounts of the allergen. Beth thinks his fingers touched the soles of his shoes and then the pill he put in his mouth. “I’m pretty sure thats what caused it,” she says.
When Ben was 13, Beth sat him down before dispatching him to summer camp. “You may have a girlfriend,” Beth told her son, “and you’re probably going to want to kiss her.” Then Beth told a story about the babysitter with a severe peanut allergy who kissed a girl at a high school dance and had to rush to the emergency room. It turned out the girl had eaten an Oh Henry candy bar. The moral of the story, Beth told her son, was this: “You’re going to have to feel comfortable enough to ask her whether she’s eaten peanut butter in the last few hours.” He replied: “Oh Mom, I know.”
Today, Ben puts it this way, “Whoever I am dating needs to have a very good understanding of my allergy.” He always asks before kissing, noting: “You have to pull one of the smooth moves.” His technique? Ask her if you can share her Coke and then, before sipping, pop the question: Have you had peanuts today? Or pull out the EpiPen. Ben’s not embarrassed about it any more. “It’s a shy issue but you have got to overcome it. If she isn’t willing to understand, or if you don’t feel comfortable, maybe it’s not worth it.”
Even after you get past those teenage kisses without any side effects that could arrest the romantic moment, dating with allergies continues to be a challenge, says Amy Cameron, the 33-year-old author of a new book on dating, Playing with Matches. Amy’s boyfriend, John, is allergic to milk, eggs and cats. The milk and eggs have never posed a real problem; John does the cooking.
But the dander allergy did cause a hitch. Amy has three cats that she picked up as strays, so John could not stay the night. “It was crazy,” says Amy. “We dated for 2 1/2 years, and he never stayed over.” Amy is allergic to cats as well, but she just puts up with sniffles. Then John moved in. “We were worried,” Amy says. But his tolerance, it turned out, had improved, while “my allergies are getting worse.”
While they were dating, Amy discovered she was allergic to tree nuts when her throat seized up after eating a second helping of a friend’s pecan pie. She saw an allergist, tested postively to nuts and now carries an auto-injector. Ever since that episode, John has helped by reminding her to check the ingredients in her food.
They’re careful about kissing, too. “If John has eaten nuts, he brushes his teeth and drinks lots of water.” In Amy’s case, that works just fine. John, by the way, doesn’t need any encouragement to brush. “Are you kidding?” says Amy. “Guys will give up pretty much anything if they can kiss someone.”
First published in Allergic Living magazine, Spring 2005
(c) Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.
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