‘Our First Date Ended In the ER’: What It’s Like to Date With A Severe Food Allergy

Food allergies can make navigating sex and relationships a little, ahem, nutty, but they can also be a great way to open up the conversation about sex.

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severe food allergy-illustration of a broken peanut heart

Illustration, Joel Louzado

Kortney Kwong Hing, a blogger who writes about food allergies (she’s allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and soy, along with a slew of other common foods), was on her first date with her now-husband when she had her first serious anaphylactic reaction to sesame. But to avoid freaking him out, she decided to play it cool and didn’t use her EpiPen. “When you’re a teenager, you’re in total denial of what’s going on,” she says. “And I was on a first date. I just wanted to be ‘cool’ and not seem like I was making a bigger deal out of what was actually going on.”

But then her symptoms began to get worse. Soon, she was having difficulty breathing, her throat was swelling and she was covered in hives. Lucky for her, her date could tell something serious was going on and insisted on calling an ambulance — something she credits with saving her life. The pair ended up ending their night at the hospital, and though it wasn’t exactly the *ideal* first date, at least her partner learned what it’s like to live with someone who has a severe food allergy early on.

Food allergies affect more Canadians than you think — in more ways than you think

Approximately 2.6 million Canadians are affected by food allergies, and the symptoms of an allergic reaction can be severe — in some cases, even deadly. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), the prevalence of peanut allergies in kids has tripled over the last 20 years — and while 80 percent of kids would typically outgrow their milk allergy between ages three and five a couple of decades ago, today only about 60 percent will. And though the number of food allergy-related deaths is decreasing, the number of ER visits from the most dangerous type of reaction, anaphylaxis, doubled between 2011 and 2015.
How Close Are We To A Cure For Food Allergies?How Close Are We To A Cure For Food Allergies?
With more people suffering with food allergies and their implications, there is also a lesser known side effect to consider: what these allergies mean for dating, relationships, and sex — especially since an allergic reaction can be triggered through kissing and physical contact. This presents a major challenge when it comes to being intimate with a partner, holding hands while on a romantic stroll or leaning in for a quick peck before leaving for work. The social side of relationships can also get a little *nutty* (pun intended), complicating everything from picking out a place to eat on a date to meeting the parents.

Let’s talk about sex

Living with a severe food allergy brings the meaning of “safe sex” to a whole new level — suddenly, you’re worried about more than STIs or pregnancy. Instead, you’re wondering when your date last ate peanut butter, whether they washed their hands — and what about brushing their teeth?!

People with food allergies have a legitimate reason for the kissing anxiety. Kwong Hing started dating her first boyfriend around the same time that a young Quebec woman with a severe peanut allergy died, reportedly after kissing her boyfriend, who had eaten peanut butter and was unaware of her allergy.

Kwong Hing had also experienced a reaction after sharing a drink with her mom, and that hardly romantic exchange taught her that an allergen could be transferred through saliva, with scary results. But after hearing the story of the young woman who died, Kwong Hing says her approach to dating changed. “I kind of established my relationship around hysteria — like, ‘Okay, you’re my first kiss and I don’t want to die from it!’”

According to allergist Dr. Susan Waserman, allergens can be transferred through saliva and close contact with a partner if they have consumed the allergen or have remnants on their hands, clothing or mouth, even *hours* after they are consumed. “In the first hour after ingestion of peanuts [one of the most common allergens], you can still measure enough to cause an acute allergic reaction,” Waserman explains. And it may not just be kissing. While she says that there is limited research on people who are exposed to allergens via intercourse, it may be possible — a U.K. woman with an allergy to Brazil nuts had a reaction to the nut protein, which was found in her partner’s semen.

The general rule is tell, *then* kiss

To avoid having a reaction from kissing or being physically intimate, it is important to establish an open line of communication between you and your partner. Yes, even though having the food allergy talk with your partner can be awkward — or even totally kill the mood.

Emily (who asked us not to use her last name) and her long-term boyfriend both suffer from severe food allergies (she has celiac disease, a dairy allergy and oral allergy syndrome, and her partner has an anaphylactic dairy allergy) — so having this conversation is a *big* part of their relationship. “When I’m with him, we’ll say things like ‘I’m contaminated!’” she explains. “That way, I know I can’t kiss him until he’s brushed his teeth.”

When it comes to preventing allergic reactions from physical contact, Waserman recommends communicating with your partner early on in the relationship so they can understand your food allergy and take necessary precautions, including knowing how to recognize signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction and learning how to use an auto-injector, like an EpiPen. “[Your partner] has to be as vigilant as you are if you’re going to be sharing a lot of things that you do together,” she says. “If you’re going to be having a close relationship where there is physical and sexual contact, the person that you’re going out with really has to understand your allergy — and to try and accommodate as best they can.”

As for taking the necessary precautions, the *best* way to avoid having a reaction is oddly similar to what your middle school sex-ed teacher might have told you: take it slow. “Waiting a certain amount of time is a good idea,” Waserman explains — especially because things such as mouthwash and brushing your teeth may not totally remove traces found in saliva. Kwong Hing waits four hours after her husband has consumed an allergen to have physical contact, and ensures that he eats an allergen-free meal in between. “If you’re dating and you’re going out that evening — avoid. I mean, why put somebody at risk if you don’t have to?”

Why people are breaking this rule

However, as on Kwong Hing’s first date with her husband, people may avoid telling their partners about their allergies or skip taking the proper precautions because of the stigma surrounding food allergies and the fear of being judged. And this is particularly true for youth. Dr. Waserman says young people tend to take more risks when it comes to their allergy because they don’t want to face judgement from their peers. In fact, most deaths caused by reactions to food happen to individuals between the ages of 10 and 19. “A lot of teens and young adults are not comfortable talking about [their allergy]” Dr. Waserman explains. “Many of them at that age don’t want to be stigmatized and they do take more risks than others.” That means many teens avoid telling their waiter about their allergies when they’re eating out, or won’t tell their dates about their allergy and how to treat a reaction in the event that they have one.

That’s all familiar for Emily. Before entering into a serious relationship, she admits feeling judged by her dates if she brought up her allergy — so she often avoided talking about it altogether. “Even on a date, I’d be riskier with what I was ordering just because I don’t want to have to reveal my allergies,” she says. “[My allergies are] definitely something I would attempt to hide because people would judge me negatively for it.” In one exchange, she recalls her date being “fake sympathetic” when she disclosed. “He kept being like, ‘Oh, that sounds like that sucks,’ but I could tell he just thought I was making it up or exaggerating,” she says.

And it’s not just a problem on dates. “[Food allergies] make the relationship harder, but we are such social people around food that it makes everything around the relationship harder, too,” she says. And that includes meeting the ’rents. Already a nerve-wracking endeavour on its own, when Emily had to tell her boyfriend’s mom that she couldn’t eat the dinner she prepared because it contained gluten, things got a little awkward. “I had to be rude and say ‘Sorry, I can’t eat that,’” she says. “I was so scared she was going to hate me.”

Should people with food allergies give up on dating altogether?

While the stigma surrounding food allergies and the potential risks involved can make you feel like changing your relationship status to “it’s complicated,” Kwong Hing is quick to tell people that they shouldn’t be afraid of dating. In fact, many allergic individuals agree that food allergies can be a great way to filter through the “baddies” — because you might *also* be allergic to your date’s attitude, amiright? Emily once called it quits on a short-lived relationship because the guy simply didn’t take her allergy seriously. “If you can’t listen to a basic thing that I’m telling you that a doctor has diagnosed me with, then there’s no way you’re going to listen to my opinions,” she says. Kwong Hing agrees, saying, “if they’re totally not okay with accommodating [your allergies], then that’s not a good sign.”

Aside from weeding out the ones who definitely are not The One, having an allergy can also be a great reason to have “the talk” with your partner — laying out your ground rules and having an open conversation about sex, something that is healthy for any relationship. “It’s always a super icebreaker,” Kwong Hing says. “It’s like ‘Hey, so the deal about kissing and sex — these are my rules.’” She explains that being forced to have this conversation early on in her relationship was a blessing in disguise. Not only did she feel safer about her allergy, she also felt more comfortable about sex, because she was confident that she and her partner were on the same page.