Hand, foot, and mouth disease

What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is a common and contagious childhood illness, caused by a virus. 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

If your child has hand, foot, and mouth disease, he or she may experience the following symptoms:

  • Fever (which can be high)
  • Headache
  • Poor appetite
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling unwell or overly tired
  • Painful sores or blisters around or in the mouth (cheeks, gums, and throat)—they usually begin as flat red spots
  • 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)

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. High fevers can cause seizures.

What causes hand, foot, and mouth disease?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is caused by the coxsackievirus. It is part of a family of viruses known as enteroviruses. It is found in the digestive tract (the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus).

The virus is spread from person to person 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 doctor 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, you child’s doctor may swab the back of your child’s throat to send to a lab. He or she might ask you to collect a stool sample from your child to send to a lab. The lab can test for the virus and rule out other possible causes of the symptoms.

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.
  • 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 doctor may recommend tips to relieve your child’s discomfort:

  • Give your child 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 your doctor 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.
  • Sore throat pain also can be relieved by gargling salt water (combine ½ teaspoon salt with 1 glass of warm water and stir).
  • Make sure your child is getting plenty of fluids. Cold milk products are better than juice or soda. The acidity in juice and soda can irritate mouth sores and cause a burning sensation. If your child is having difficulty swallowing, try giving them non-juice popsicles.

Your child should recover completely in 5 to 7 days.

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.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Does the virus spread by touching the sores or blisters?
  • Can you apply an ointment to the sores to relieve the pain?
  • Do the sores or blisters leave long-term scars?
  • Do the sores inside your mouth take longer to heal than the sores on your hands and feet?
  • How long is my child contagious?