Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is a viral infection that typically affects children ages 10 and younger (although teenagers and adults can also contract the illness). It spreads person-to-person through air droplets released when someone coughs, sneezes, or blows their nose. You can also catch it by touching a surface with virus contamination, or by contacting blister fluids or stool (poop) from someone with the disease.
The most common cause of hand-foot-and-mouth disease is a virus named coxsackievirus A16. Most cases occur in the summer and early fall.
Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is not the same as foot-and-mouth disease or hoof-and-mouth disease. That viral infection occurs only in farm animals and can’t be transmitted to humans. Humans can’t pass hand-foot-and-mouth disease on to pets or other animals.
Hand-foot-and-mouth disease often spreads in childcare settings because of frequent toilet use and diaper changes. Smaller children are more likely to put their hands in their mouths, then place them on other people or surfaces.
The most contagious phase for children is during the first week. But the virus often sticks around in your child’s system for weeks after they’ve stopped showing symptoms. Adults may show no symptoms at all yet still be infectious.
Most hand-foot-and-mouth symptoms start showing up three to seven days after initial infection. Below are some of the disease’s most common signs:
Your child may start running a fever and showing other flu-like symptoms. They may be less interested in eating and drinking and end up with a sore throat.
Painful mouth sores, called herpangina, are another symptom. They look like small red spots and are usually located in the back of a child’s mouth. The sores may blister and become painful. Your child may be dealing with this issue if they show any of the following signs:
- Not wanting to eat or drink
- Wanting only cold fluids to drink
- More drooling than usual
The herpangina may bring on a sudden high fever and even a seizure. You may want to contact your doctor if the sores continue interfering with your child’s eating or if their symptoms continue to worsen.
A rash may show up on the palm of your child’s hand or the soles of their feet. It may also show up in places like the elbows, knees, genital area, and buttocks. The skin rash typically resembles flat, red spots that sometimes blister. The fluid inside the blister contains the virus, so it’s important to keep those areas clean. Your child should do their best not to touch others until the rash clears up.
Complications from Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease
One of the most common complications arising from hand-foot-and-mouth disease is dehydration. Since there are sores in the mouth and throat, making swallowing more difficult, it’s important to make sure that your child gets enough fluids while battling the illness.
While rare, an uncommon and serious form of coxsackievirus can make its way to the brain and cause more severe complications like:
Remedies and Treatments for Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease
There are currently no specific remedies or treatments for hand-foot-and-mouth disease. Your doctor may advise you to have your child rest, while you do what you can to control the symptoms. Make sure the child gets enough fluids and receives medication for any aches and pains. The doctor may recommend avoiding aspirin, as that can lead to other complications.
You and your child may take certain precautions to reduce risk of exposure to hand-foot-and-mouth disease:
- Always wash your hands — Practice frequent handwashing, especially after changing a diaper or using the toilet. Wash your hands before any food preparation. Use a gel or hand wipes with alcohol if no soap and water are available.
- Disinfect areas where people gather — Clean high-traffic areas with soap and water, then follow with a diluted (watered-down) chlorine bleach and water solution. Make sure that items like toys and pacifiers receive frequent cleaning.
- Keep contagious individuals separate — Limit exposure to anyone infected with hand-foot-and-mouth mouth disease. It’s a good idea to keep children out of childcare or school until their mouth sores heal and they’re fever free.
A person may develop immunity to hand-foot-and-mouth disease after recovery. But it’s tied only to that specific virus strain. It may be possible for someone previously infected to contract a different form of the virus.