Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease
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What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?
Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is a common childhood illness. It is caused by a virus and is very contagious, but not severe. The disease is easy to spot because of its classic symptoms — sores or blisters inside and outside the mouth, as well as a rash (red spots) or sores on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
Infants and children younger than age 5 are most likely to get the virus. But older children, teens, and adults can get it, too. A mild outbreak of the disease commonly occurs during summer and early fall. The disease should not be confused with foot-and-mouth disease, which affects sheep, cattle, and pigs.
Symptoms of hand, foot, and mouth disease
The common symptoms of hand, foot, and mouth disease are:
- Painful sores or blisters around or in the mouth (cheeks, gums, and throat)
- Rash of flat red spots on the palms of the hands and the feet. These mildly painful spots may turn into blisters and can sometimes spread to the knees, elbows, bottom, or genital areas.
- Fever (which can be high)
- Feeling unwell or overly tired
- Poor appetite
- Sore throat
These symptoms don’t usually appear all at once, but in stages. Not every person will have all of these symptoms. Some people, especially adults, get the disease and don’t show any symptoms at all. But they can still pass it on to others.
Symptoms usually appear 3 to 7 days after coming into contact with someone with the disease. Further symptoms can develop from complications. Because the sores make it painful to swallow, children and adults can become dehydrated.
What causes hand, foot, and mouth disease?
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is caused by either coxsackie viruses or human enteroviruses. It is found in the digestive tract (the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus).
The virus is spread when a sick person sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose. You can get it if you touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after touching something contaminated with the virus, such as a toy. You can also get it if you touch the stool (poop) or blisters of a person who is infected.
How is hand, foot, and mouth disease diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider will review your child’s recent signs of illness and examine your child’s sores or blisters to diagnose hand, foot, and mouth disease. In rare cases, your child’s healthcare provider may swab the back of your child’s throat to send to a lab.
Can hand, foot, and mouth disease be prevented or avoided?
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is contagious. So, it’s important to avoid contact with anyone who has it. But you or your child won’t always know when another person has the virus (especially in the early stages). Make sure you and your child practice good hygiene:
- Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water.
- Encourage your child to cover their mouth and nose when they sneeze.
- Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, especially with unwashed hands.
- Disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched, such as doorknobs or toys, especially if someone is sick.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease treatment
There is no cure for hand, foot, and mouth disease. Since it is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t work. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms.
Your healthcare provider may recommend tips to relieve your child’s discomfort:
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers to treat fever and sore throat. These could include acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (1 brand name: Advil). Check the back of the box or consult a healthcare provider on dosage. Do not give a child under age 18 aspirin for pain. Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can be deadly without early treatment.
- Gargle with salt water to relieve sore throat pain. Combine ½ teaspoon salt with 1 glass of warm water and stir.
- Get plenty of fluids. Water, cold milk products, or Pedialyte are best. Avoid fruit juice and soda which can burn or irritate mouth sores. If your child is having difficulty swallowing, try giving them non-juice popsicles.
Living with hand, foot, and mouth disease
Living with hand, foot, and mouth disease is a short-term challenge since the symptoms go away in about a week. As a parent caring for a child who has the virus, your primary goals are to keep your child comfortable, at home to rest and away from situations that will infect others. Your child should recover completely in 5 to 7 days.