Dating Poses Grave Risks for Allergic Teens

Victoria Richards was ready to spend Sunday -- date day -- with her boyfriend. He was nice, funny and he had the bluest blue eyes. That afternoon, as they sat together on her porch, he leaned in for a kiss, and Richards leaned back.

"What have you eaten today?" she asked him.

Inquiring about a date's food intake could kill the romantic mood, but the question is a familiar one to people who have severe allergies. A kiss can be deadly if your loved one has eaten a food to which you are allergic. And for teenagers in particular, an allergy can add yet another degree of difficulty in the dating arena.

"He got kind of freaked out," said Richards, 16, who has a fatal nut allergy. "I was definitely looking out for myself on that one because I did like him a lot."

Having a severe food allergy can be like dealing with the possibility of a terrorist attack, according to Lisa Provost, a licensed mental health counselor at Integrity, Psychological Counseling in Indiana.

"In unexpected places, things can pop up," Provost said. "The challenge is, they need to be vigilant."

But being vigilant about a food allergy can be frustrating when it prevents someone from enjoying things most people take for granted. For Ross Peterson, 15, listing his allergies, which include milk, peanuts and tree nuts, can seem like dating caveats.

"That's the hardest part," Peterson said. "I feel obligated to tell [girls] before I ask them out."

The problem is compounded because an allergic person needs a strong sense of confidence and the ability to assert his or her needs in order to stay safe in any environment, skills that teenagers are still developing.

"It's a difficult icebreaker to say, Please don't eat peanuts or, I can't kiss you if you have that milkshake," said Dr. Robert Wood, director of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "Once couples become couples, everything gets much easier. … The more comfortable they get with someone they're friends with or dating, the easier it is."

According to Wood, allergic reactions from kissing or other social contact may be one of the most underreported types of reactions, especially if the reactions are mild, involving some itching, swelling or redness. No one wants to go home and tell their parents that they had a reaction because of something they were doing with a boyfriend or girlfriend, Woods said.

Flirting With Disaster

Although it would be impossible to quantify the number of teenagers who risk a reaction because they are in a social or romantic situation and don't want to draw attention to their allergy, Wood said he believes nearly all teens have taken such a risk more than once.

"The proportion who act the same way in social situations as they do with parents is the minority," Wood said. "A lot of them do bend the rules."

For example, when eating in a new restaurant with a group of friends, someone might forgo speaking to the manager or chef about the ingredients in a dish for fear of seeming picky or annoying. A teenager might endure the discomfort of a mild reaction because they do not want to reach for their antihistamine medication or an EpiPen for a self-administered shot of adrenaline in front of their friends.

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