Dating with Allergies

Dating with food (and other) allergies is probably the most challenging part of being a mid-20s-year-old. I am sure that other mid-20s people would agree that dating is challenging, but the added food anxiety, saliva anxiety, and reaction anxiety that comes with dating make the tightrope *that* much higher. Combined with the fact that most of the resources about allergies (food allergies in particular) are made for 5-year-olds, things get hard.

There are many “lessons learned” about dating with allergies that I’d like to share, so I think this post is going to be long and many-parts.

I’ll try to keep it all quick and concise, but here’s the overview:

  1. Red flags & early warning signs
  2. Setting food & allergy related boundaries
  3. Kissing & allergens
  4. Communicating with your partner
  5. Getting away from the food-centric dates
  6. Continuing the Conversations

PART 1: Red Flags & Early Warning Signs

Of course every relationship is different (and I’m not here to tell you what to do) but here are some major “red flags” that I’ve found while trying to navigate the dating scene:

  1. If your partner doesn’t respect your allergy comfort levels on things like restaurant choices, cooking methods, and cleanliness
  2. If your partner makes jokes about your allergies/allergens that you aren’t in on (a funny pun here are there, cute! Waving peanut butter in front of you, not.)
  3. If your partner actively puts you in danger
  4. If your partner continues to put you in danger after explanations
  5. If your partner belittles you and your concerns for you health
  6. If your partner gaslights you regarding your allergies (remember DARVO – defends themselves, attacks you, and then reverses the victim & offender. Something like causing a reaction, saying it wasn’t their fault, and then turning themselves into the victim in some way)
  7. If your partner won’t learn about ways to keep you safe
  8. If an important part of your partners life is something that is unsafe for you (think: owning a dog when you have dog allergies)
  9. If your partner oversteps your boundaries

Obviously there may be exceptions here and there, but long story short: if the person you are in a relationship with does not respect you, your health, or your boundaries, then maybe it isn’t the right place for you.

Part 2: Setting Food & Allergy Related Boundaries

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest parts of being a human (for me). Setting and enforcing a personal boundary often feels like letting someone down, which is something that I tend to struggle with as a people-pleaser. HOWEVER, it is important to note that your personal boundaries should not ever be based on the comfort level of anyone other than you. If your boundary means that someone else needs to be let down, that is their problem.

Boundaries are important for respecting yourself, and for keeping you safe. Identifying and setting your boundaries gives you a framework to move through social situations, and can help you identify what you are and are not comfortable with.

Some important questions to ask yourself to identify your boundaries include:

  1. What am I comfortable with in terms of eating (or drinking) at restaurants & bars? Are there certain cuisines that make it harder for me to stay safe?
  2. What am I comfortable sharing? What do I need to not share?
  3. What do I need nearby in order to feel safe?
  4. What makes me uncomfortable?
  5. What am I comfortable with in regards to romantic gestures?
  6. What am I comfortable with in regards to sexual acts, and how another person’s bodily fluids come into contact with me?

No one can answer these questions other than you. Other people can give you their advice/experiences, your doctor can give recommendations based on your condition and your health, but at the end of the day you need to figure out your own answers to these questions.

Also, your boundaries can (and probably will) change over time. As you get older, your health and needs may change, your abilities may change, and your wants may change. A boundary does not need to be constant- it can be fluid and shift as you do. That being said, it is super important to continue to communicate your boundaries to a partner (especially when they shift).

My (current) answers to the above are:

  1. I haven’t felt comfortable going to restaurants since my new allergens were identified. I tend to feel safest at sushi restaurants, where I know that there is food on the menu I can order and eat with very little customization. Prior to my diagnosis, I felt safe at restaurants I’d been to before, that I knew took allergens seriously and had foods I knew were safe. If I am going on a date to a restaurant, I am not comfortable being surprised and instead need to take an active part in choosing a restaurant I can eat at. At bars, I stick to wine, shots, or canned/bottled drinks that I know are safe. Nothing that needs to go in a shared shaker. If I do plan on drinking, I want to be with people and having my emergency supplies on hand.
  2. If it is just my partner and I, and I know my partner’s saliva is currently “safe”, I don’t mind sharing a dish. I’m not comfortable sharing food “family style” with a group, or sharing eating utensils. If safety is unclear, I prefer to have a separate dish that only I touch. I’m also not comfortable sharing personal hygiene items (like toothbrushes), or water bottles.
  3. Things I need nearby to feel safe include antihistamines, my inhaler, my epipen. If I am trying new foods or a new dish, I feel most comfortable with another person nearby who is trained to use my epipens, and access to medical care.
  4. Flowers, hikes, movies are all a big-yes! Surprises that include food or candy and dates that include restaurants I didn’t have a say in are a no.
  5. If my partner eats nuts, no kissing for a few days + multiple tooth brushings + meals in between. If my partner eats one of my less severe allergens, no kissing for a few hours + plenty of water and a safe meal in between.

Part 3: Kissing and Allergens

Following off of #5 in the list from part 2: kissing and allergens. I think most of us in the allergy community have heard the stories of peanut-allergy sufferers dying after a peanut-buttery-kiss, or have had some sort of reaction ourselves.

My worst saliva-based reactions came from a partner I had been dating back in 2018. He knew about my allergies, and the boundary I’d communicated to him was that it needed to be a few hours (preferably ~6) in between him eating nuts and kissing me, and no eating nuts around me.

The longer we were dating, the more he pushed the time boundary. Luckily for me, one of the close-cut times he had kissed my hand right after we met up and I got a rash, so I knew not to let him close to my mouth. A week or two later, same thing but he kissed my neck & a rash appeared. At that point, I went back to an allergist, got retested, talked with my allergist about the issue, and she recommended that my partner not eat nuts. I told him the shift in the boundary, and he agreed to it. However, I also started asking him what he’d eaten before he would kiss me, and he kept eating nuts. I decided it wasn’t worth the personal risk, and ended the relationship.

Some of the major red flags there: he put me in danger, continued to (knowingly) put me in danger, he would need comforting after my rashes (but didn’t comfort me while I was reacting), and he didn’t respect when my boundaries shifted.

The real question here though is: what to do? What works? I’ve tended to refer to this study & a mix of anecdotal evidence to figure that out:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16950293/

Thus far, it’s the only study I’ve seen relevant to this topic. It’s short and worth a read if you can get access to the article, but here’s the summary if you can’t:

38 individuals ate two tablespoons of peanut butter, and they measured detectable peanut protein in their saliva over the course of the next few hours. The study was then repeated with different interventions (brushing teeth, chewing gum, mouthwash). What they found was that after several hours and a peanut-free meal, 90% of participants had undetectable levels of peanut in their saliva. The interventions were variable in terms of success, and the study raises the possibility of a non-new toothbrush re-introducing allergens into saliva. Some test subjects showed a later re-emergence of peanut protein, which they said could be caused by food remnants unlodging from teeth.

There are some shortcomings to this study: only peanut protein was tested, transference of protein onto utensils wasn’t tested, the overall test group was small.

The biggest takeaways (for me) are:

  1. A “safe” meal prior to saliva exchange is important
  2. Nothing can replace time
  3. Everyone’s mouth is different – some people are peanut-free fast, others not.

So what does this mean? That’s really up to you to determine your personal comfort level.

As someone who has reacted to a partner’s saliva because of peanuts, I am not comfortable kissing (or with the saliva of) another person if they have had nuts within the past 24 hours.

At the same time, with my less-severe allergens, a few hours, another meal, and a brush with a clean toothbrush is enough to make me feel okay.

Part 4: Communicating with Your Partner

Alright, another tricky one (but it shouldn’t be).

Communicating your needs and boundaries to your partner is an essential part of a healthy relationship (allergies or not). It can also feel really hard sometimes.

One of the most important parts of dating is remembering to make and keep space for yourself and your opinions and your feelings. YOU are worth it.

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the United States, and remembering that is one of my biggest struggles. Be it internalized sexism, or not wanting to be like the “allergy kid” in tv shows, speaking up for myself often makes me feel bad. Even though it makes me feel bad, I’ll do it today, and tomorrow, and the day after that to keep myself safe.

The best advice that I have for communicating with your partner about your allergy needs (and well, anything) is setting up a foundation of communication: start early and start strong. It isn’t okay to put yourself in dangerous situations while you work up the nerve to be honest with someone else. Have your list of your food allergy needs, and when you decide you like someone enough to go on a date with them, then it’s also time to have the conversation.

So what does “the conversation” look like? It depends.

Back when I was on dating apps, I liked to have a prompt in my bio be about my nut allergy. If a potential partner responded with a joke or being rude, I’d block them. Not worth my time. If a partner responded with experience with allergies, or curious, then we’d talk and I’d lay down my ground rules.

If I met someone through a friend, or at a bar, or a concert, or at the park (etc.) the conversation tended to look a bit different. Sometimes if someone would lean in and try for a kiss and I’d have to swerve back and start with “ha, sorry, what did you eat today? I have a nut allergy.” If we instead started by texting, I’d explain my boundaries over text or phone call.

Here’s an easy script to use:

“Hi! Just a heads up- I have a severe _____ allergy. I can’t come in contact with any _______ , including in saliva. _____ tends to last around 24 hours in someone’s saliva, so just a heads up! Also, _______ food typically isn’t safe for me- so why don’t we go to _________?”

This might sound like it’ll take the *spark* out of dating. Trust me, I’d rather have a less spontaneous date if it will keep me from reacting.

On this note: asking what someone ate before they kiss you is always okay. Just because you explained it beforehand does not mean they remembered, and you should not feel embarrassed for keeping yourself safe.

Having this dialogue and conversation early on will also make it easier to revisit in the future. If keeping you safe is something that someone is unwilling to do from the start , then run.

Part 5: Getting Away from Food-Centric Dates

When you have food restrictions, it is important to find activities & date ideas that aren’t centered around food. So much of dating culture is advertised to be around restaurants and eating, and with food allergies that often leads to more anxiety than fun. Experiential and food-flexible dates are so important, so I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorites. Enjoy!

  1. Hike
  2. Movie theater
  3. Drive-in movie
  4. Go to the theater
  5. Go to the ballet
  6. Binge-watch a tv show together
  7. Beach Day
  8. Go to a butterfly garden
  9. Go to a botanical garden
  10. Picnic (food flexible idea- bring your own safe food)
  11. Riverside walk
  12. Explore a new part of town
  13. Stargazing
  14. Swimming
  15. Sailing
  16. Ice Skating
  17. Roller Skating
  18. Take a class together (yoga, painting, etc)
  19. Go to a pumpkin patch
  20. Carve pumpkins (if safe)
  21. Look at christmas lights
  22. Watch the sunrise/sunset from a lookout point
  23. Art Museum
  24. Science Museum
  25. Aquarium
  26. Board Game Night
  27. Puzzle Night
  28. Arcade
  29. Concert
  30. Go to a national park
  31. Kayaking or Canoeing
  32. Biking
  33. Dancing
  34. Pillow fort
  35. Wine tasting (if safe)

Part 6: Continuing the Conversation

At the end of the day, there is always going to be more to know, things I could’ve done differently, and better ways to handle things. I’m a human and I’m not perfect, and that’s okay.

As my boundaries have shifted and as I’ve gotten older, things have continued to change. I’ve dated partners with allergies, and I’m currently dating someone without. Some things that we have found work for us include:

  1. Having a shared phone reminders list of allergens
  2. (when having different allergens) keeping separate and different colored sponges
  3. Having different sets of cooking utensils for different items
  4. Having “poison drawers” and areas in each others kitchens to store food that isn’t mutually edible

Regardless, in my best relationships the most important thing I have found is having someone else on my side and in my corner. Allergies often feel like a war against the world, and having someone else who listens and stands by you is absolutely wonderful.

At the same time, I have loved and learned a lot from when I was single, and learning to be okay with myself and with my allergies was invaluable in finding a relationship where I was safe, comfortable, and me.

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