College Roommates: How to Have the Food Allergy Talk

in College Corner, Features, Food Allergy, Managing Allergies
Published: August 8, 2023
Maya Konoff and Eliana Koenigsberg (left and 2nd), plus rest of Syracuse U roommates.

Living with roommates at a college campus can seem daunting for students with food allergies. Will they follow your allergy rules? Will you feel comfortable asking for allergen restrictions in what’s their space, too? Can they help in a reaction?

Yet, Maya Konoff can tell you that getting to know roommates is worth every bit of food allergy explaining. The experience can start friendships to last a lifetime. 

“It was so special getting to live with four of my best friends,” says Maya of her senior year at Syracuse University, sharing a house off campus. She is allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame, and in freshman year also managed a dairy allergy (now outgrown).

Early communication about her food allergies with her roommates was key to ensuring Maya could safely enjoy moments like hanging out together on the porch. “I was really lucky to have roommates each year who went above and beyond to make sure I was safe,” she says. And in freshman year, when she did have a reaction, it was a roommate who stayed by her side at the hospital.

Students with food allergies will have made accommodation plans with college housing and disability services. But the reality of shared living comes at move-in time and meeting the roommate. Amid the sea of new and big that is campus, they must also learn to negotiate a safe living space.

Allergic Living turned to current and former students with food allergies for their best roommate advice. They start by pointing to a few essential steps that will help set up food-allergic college students for success. They include: 

  • Establish your own comfort zone and set boundaries to achieve it.
  • Be vocal about your food allergy needs to stay safe.
  • Educate roommates about reactions and using an auto-injector.

Allergy Boundaries with Roommates

Whether sharing a dorm room, an apartment or house, allergic students must first decide what makes them most comfortable to maintain a safe environment. For example, do they want their dorm room completely free of their allergen? Or are they comfortable with the allergen present in their living space?

“College is hard enough and your dorm is supposed to be your place to unwind,” says Emma Sorrentino, who is allergic to peanuts. “That won’t be the case if you’re stressed about your allergies when you’re there.”

Emma lived with randomly assigned roommates during her first two years in dorm rooms at the University of Vermont. Because the rooms are small and she wasn’t comfortable being around peanuts, she was adamant that no peanut products be in her living space. 

“The smell can make me nauseous and the sight can make me anxious,” says the senior majoring in biochemistry. “I asked to just avoid those foods in the room altogether.” 

When she moved into a bigger, off-campus apartment, she felt more comfortable allowing sealed snacks, such as granola bars or peanut candy in the apartment. But Emma, who’s from western Massachusetts, still asked her roommates to keep them in their own rooms.

Camden McIntire also asked his assigned freshman roommate to avoid storing or eating foods he is allergic in their dorm room at California Polytechnic State University. This meant no peanuts, tree nuts or eggs. His roommate turned out to be considerate and helpful, making sure to tell friends who came over to avoid eating Camden’s allergens.  

Allergens in College Housing

When he moved to an on-campus apartment in sophomore year, Camden’s three roommates only ate his allergens away from the apartment. They had separate cookware to avoid any potential cross-contact, and were mindful not to cook allergenic food in the apartment. 

Camden McIntire and Krista Saito

“I felt comfortable. It made it easy not to have the added stress of food allergens on top of everything else,” says Camden, a junior majoring in biological science. His roommates and friends also helped maintain the safe environment with diligent hand-washing. 

Setting boundaries is also important for students who feel comfortable having their allergens in their living space.

In her freshman dorm room, Maya asked her roommate to keep unsafe food away from her side of the room. Later, she did the same in a dorm suite, where her roommates just kept allergenic foods out of her room. When she then had a full kitchen in off-campus housing, the roommates had assigned shelves in the fridge and pantry to keep their foods separate. Maya also used her own set of pots and utensils, and kept her own sponge for cleaning.

The separate cooking tools “made it easier to keep her safe,” says Eliana Koenigsberg, who was one of Maya’s roommates in off-campus housing during junior and senior year.

Be Vocal About Food Allergies

The college student-advocates we spoke to say that communication about food allergies needs to start before arriving on campus. Whether through text, FaceTime, social media messaging or in person, connecting early is key.

Camden reached out to his roommate on Instagram as soon as they were assigned before freshman year. They were able to meet up to discuss the severity of Camden’s allergies. The roommate was immediately understanding.

“Be vocal about your allergies,” says Camden. “You can’t expect help if you’re not willing to ask for it.” Since food allergies can be life-threatening, “you must be willing to advocate for yourself even though that can be very hard.” 

Emma agrees it can be difficult to have “the allergy talk” with your roommates. “But it’s about your safety, not their comfort.” 

She discusses her needs and trains her roommates on using epinephrine. Most have said words like “anything you need; I’d hate for something to happen to you. You just tell me what I should do to prevent that,” says Emma, who is an EMT minoring in emergency medical services.

Student Gabby Patin also finds most roommates are understanding about the boundaries she requests for food allergies. For example, if friends are eating nut-laced ice cream cones and there could be spills, this is a problem. So she’s upfront with them.

The senior majoring in health sciences on a premed track at Texas’s Baylor University is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. In Gabby’s experience, “most people prefer to spare your life than to indulge in a small treat.” 

Maya’s friend Eliana assures, “it is not challenging to room with someone with a food allergy. My advice is not to let it scare you. Just listen closely to what your roommate with allergies needs, learn how to use an auto-injector, and know where to access one.” 

Roommates and Epi Education

Krista Saito, who graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2018, stresses the importance of ensuring roommates understand the severity of food allergies. As well, they need to know how to recognize an allergic reaction – and how to treat it.

She made sure her roommates understood that consuming allergens could put her in the hospital – or worse. In a respectful manner, Krista made clear that with her allergies to peanuts and several tree nuts, she needed help to stay safe. 

The student and her roommates reviewed how to use an epinephrine auto-injector and practiced with a trainer. “I always felt my roommates in the house had my back when it came to food allergies in our living situation,” says Krista, who lives in San Jose, California.

Camden, who is from San Diego, says his roommates have all been understanding, and receptive to training with the Auvi-Q epinephrine trainer. He taught his roommates that, even if they are in doubt about the severity of a reaction, use the auto-injector and ask questions later. 

Gabby also makes sure her roommates know where she keeps her epinephrine auto-injector and feel comfortable and willing to use it. She finds it helpful that the Auvi-Q auto-injector trainer has voice activation. It can calmly talk her roommates through the process. 

“My roommates are all very good about helping me to remember to bring epinephrine out with me, and are respectful of my allergies,” says Gabby, who is from Reno, Nevada.

Roommate Reacted When Needed

During yearly training with epinephrine auto-injector trainers, Maya would discuss anaphylaxis with her roommates, and share stories about her allergic reactions. She kept the conversation casual, so as not to scare anyone. But she also stressed that this was serious, and she needed them to be prepared, in case she happened to eat the wrong thing. 

Gabby Patin and Emma Sorrentino

“I was confident we had the tools to help her if she had a reaction,” roommate Eliana recalls.

In fact, Maya did have an allergic reaction during one of the first weekends of her freshman year. She was able to inject herself with her epinephrine auto-injector. 

She was incredibly thankful that her former roommate also sprang into action. The student immediately told the resident advisor what was happening. Then the roommate not only rode with her in the ambulance, she stayed with Maya all night at the hospital.

Today, Maya says the epinephrine training of her roommates each year “was by far the most important thing for me to feel safe.” Maya, who is from Port Washington, New York, graduated in May 2023 with a degree in psychology.

Tools to Talk Allergies with Roommates

Communication doesn’t come easily to everyone, however. To help, the nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team has created a how-to primer of conversation starters for allergy discussions with roommates.

Eleanor Garrow-Holding, FAACT‘s president and CEO, says it’s essential to stay honest and to the point when discussing allergies with a potential roommate.

Through open conversations, “students are building the path for a trusting relationship so that everyone is sharing their true needs and limitations,” Garrow-Holding says. 

Parents can also help students to feel confident having these sometimes uncomfortable conversations. For example, they can help them to determine their needs, and guide them on how best to communicate this with a roommate, she says. 

Allergy advocate Caroline Moassessi has experienced college life as mom of two food-allergic students. She agrees that it is vital to teach your kids both communication and follow-up skills to help prepare for negotiations with roommates. 

“The key is to not do the work for them,” says Moassessi, who is FAACT’s vice president of community relations. “Allow them to experience the confidence and satisfaction of explaining their needs and limitations.” 

Situation Solutions

Krista knew most of the students who became her college roommates, so they understood her needs. From sophomore year on, she and her brother shared a house off-campus with friends. Her conversations were usually just reminders that she wasn’t comfortable having allergenic food left on the counter – and to clean up. 

Even with good cooperation, there can be oversights. Krista ran into a situation in which a roommate ate a peanut granola bar in the entry of their house. She somehow had exposure – likely related to crumbs on a chair. This resulted in an allergic reaction, with hives, flushed skin and burning ears – plus a trip to urgent care and epinephrine. Afterward, she and her roommates talked about cleaning up more when eating in the house.

“Working through these situations was easy because we all cared for each other,” she says. 

Camden’s supportive roommates were at pains to be honest with him when a roommate’s friend visited and cooked in one of his pans. Once they realized this had happened, potentially exposing Camden to cross-contact, they told him. Then they bought him a new pan. 

Being away from the food allergy support system of home can be a lot to handle. But Emma finds that communicating with roommates, and ensuring your living space is a safe place can create a successful comfort zone for your college life.

“Don’t miss out on experiences because you’re afraid. Be cautious and always be prepared, but college isn’t forever,” she reminds. “So seize every opportunity to try something new.”

Related Resources
At 4 Colleges, Food-Allergic Students Get Taste of Inclusion
Living the College Football Dream – with Food Allergy, Celiac, EoE
FAACT podcast with Maya Konoff and Emma Sorrentino