When I was single and in college, I occasionally found myself at a party wanting to kiss a boy. While other girls might debate the romantic implications of this choice—Should I really kiss him after a few drinks? Does he like me?—I had more serious concerns. What if he ate a Snickers before he went out that night? Or what if he took a shot of Amaretto at the bar? I’m deathly allergic to nuts. Peanuts, almonds, pine nuts, cashews…all nuts.
I’m so allergic that locking lips with someone who’s eaten nuts can be enough to kill me. If I don’t administer a life-saving shot of epinephrine into my thigh and get to a hospital within ten minutes of having accidentally ingested a nut (be it through eating a cookie or kissing), my throat will close and my heart will stop. Go for a frivolous kiss, and I could find myself in the hospital explaining to my parents why, if didn’t know a guy well enough to ask if he’d eaten nuts, did I think I knew him well enough to kiss him.
Food allergies suck to begin with. And when it comes to first kisses, allergies make things awkward and complicated. I have spent most of my life since high school with one boyfriend or another. Part of that is just personal preference; and part of it’s luck. But I also sometimes wonder if my nut allergy hasn’t made me more monogamous. It just feels safer that way.
My friends have joked that for me making out with a boy means risking my life. They’re not wrong. A 15-year-old Canadian girl died in 2010 after kissing her boyfriend who had forgotten he’d eaten peanut butter earlier that day. Doctors say that allergens can be transferred through kissing and even through sexual intercourse. I know all this, but to spare myself social awkwardness I often avoid mentioning my allergy. I have never stopped a boy about to kiss me to explain to him my situation. Not even after my first real date ended with me in the hospital.
I was 16. We planned to eat at P.F. Chang’s and then see a movie. He ordered something with peanuts on it. I was too shy to object, and at the time I didn’t know any better. He kissed me as we walked to the movie theater. We never actually saw the movie. The date ended with me holed up in a bathroom jabbing myself with an EpiPen I carry with me at all times while my date had to call my father to explain what had happened.
Since then, I’ve had to decide when during the course of a relationship I introduce the fact that I’m deathly allergic to nuts, which means that the person I’m dating has to behave as if he is also allergic to nuts. While giving up eating nuts may seem like a small sacrifice for your spouse or long-time partner, it’s a much bigger deal when you’ve just started dating.
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Will my date roll his eyes and assume that when I say “food allergy” I mean an upset stomach like those people who don’t really do too well with gluten? Because I don’t. I mean doctors cutting open my shirt as they wheel me to the E.R. to administer injections that will allow me to be able to breathe again. And it’s not just the kiss of death I worry about. It’s easy to accidentally eat something with nuts in it which can make your date pretty nervous if you’re eating out. (Cross-contamination—or when something with nuts in a restaurant kitchen accidentally touches or is mixed in with what I’m going to eat—has led to most of my hospitalizations.)
My current boyfriend and I were friends for about a year before we dated, so he knew how bad my allergies were. But a month into our relationship, I pulled out my EpiPen and demonstrated how he would have to inject me—it’s a drill I run with all boyfriends, roommates and friends at some point. His eyes widened and he made me demonstrate three more times. Since, he’s started explaining my nut allergy to waiters at restaurants for me. He panics when I start to feel queasy for any reason. I hate making him worry.
But dating someone who loves me and understands my problem also spares me many of the awkward moments of being single with allergies. A college friend once joked that she knew my ex and I had gotten back together when she noticed he stopped adding nuts to his oatmeal in the dining hall. Another time when I was trying to flirt with a boy and invite him to watch a movie with friends in my room, a mutual friend of ours was also texting him not to eat nuts that night. So much for subtlety.
I often think that this all may be fodder for a mildly funny sitcom subplot. Except it’s real life, and it’s not so funny when I have to pull out the EpiPen in an emergency.
And with more and more kids being diagnosed with deadly food allergies, I worry that young teens will act as recklessly as I have, with dire consequences. One in 13 children are diagnosed with food allergies, a 50 percent increase since 1997. (Nobody really knows why allergies are on the rise, though there are lots of theories.) This means in the near future one in 13 teenagers will face the kissing problem.
And while parents of those kids might like the more-prone-to-monogamy part, I can attest it’s not worth the near-death experiences. The increase in severe allergies has prompted a new bill introduced in the Senate last week that proposes mandating that all schools keep epinephrine to administer to kids who have a deathly allergy attack. But some of the social issues—like kissing—can’t be legislated away, and it’s up to kids with allergies and their parents to educate themselves and stay safe.