Hand-foot-and-mouth (HFM) disease is a common contagious illness that usually affects children before they turn 5 years old. It is usually caused by the coxsackievirus, and is spread via close personal contact, through the air when a sick person coughs, or through contamination with feces. Because small children often don’t wash their hands frequently, the disease spreads easily in child care centers and schools. You cannot get hand-foot-and-mouth disease from animals.
Adults can get the illness if they have not already had it, but they are more likely to show no symptoms. In rare cases, the disease can produce more severe symptoms in adults than in children.
You’re most likely to catch hand-foot-and-mouth disease in the summer or early fall if you live in the U.S. The disease is most contagious during the first week you have symptoms, but it can spread for several days after symptoms pass.
Hand-foot-and-mouth disease produces small blisters in the throat and mouth that break to leave a sore. It can be hard for caregivers to see these blisters or sores in young children; symptoms may include not wanting to eat or drink or excessive drooling because swallowing is painful.
Other symptoms include a rash of small red blisters or spots on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Some children also develop a rash on their trunk, legs and buttocks.
You might also notice that your child is lethargic, irritable and sleeps more than usual. Fever and muscle aches can accompany moderate to severe cases of hand-foot-and-mouth disease.
Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is most commonly caused by infection of the coxsackievirus A16 – a nonpolio enterovirus. Victims of hand-foot-and-mouth disease are usually infected by oral ingestion and the infection spreads through saliva, throat discharge, stool, fluid from blisters, nasal fluid, and the resulting respiratory drops often sprayed after someone sneezes or coughs.
Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is contagious and can easily spread throughout day care centers. It’s common among children in these areas because of how frequently small children put their hands in their mouth, and also due to repeated diaper changes and potty training. Typically, children can infect other children for a while after their symptoms disappear; adults can pass it on without any symptoms.
Usually the symptoms of hand-foot-and-mouth disease clear up on their own within 7 to 10 days. Parents may want to give children over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lessen their throat and mouth pain as well as any muscle aches. Your doctor can advise you on the correct dosage for your child.
Cold foods like iced drinks and popsicles may feel good on your child’s throat. Encourage them to stay hydrated and eat anything that they are comfortable swallowing. If you think your child may be dehydrated, a medical professional can administer fluids or advise on giving hydrating drinks.
Although there is no vaccine to protect against hand-foot-and-mouth disease, preventing it can be accomplished by washing your hands frequently throughout the day with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Do this after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or prior to coming into contact with anything unsanitary. You should also wash your hands before preparing food and before eating. If you don’t have access to warm water, hand sanitizer will suffice. Encourage your children to practice proper hand-washing techniques as well.
Fight the urge to touch your nose, mouth and eyes with dirty hands – especially after being in public all day. Wash your hands before touching any part of your face. Teach your children good hygiene as well by instructing them how to keep their hands, fingers and other objects out of their mouths. If your baby or small child still uses a pacifier, clean it often.
Keep your home clean and use disinfectant on surfaces and on objects like doorknobs, toys, or the remote control; common areas should also be disinfected. You can use bleach and water following a coat of soap and water.
Since the disease is highly contagious, it goes without saying that avoiding close contact with someone infected with hand-foot-and-mouth disease – such as hugging, kissing, or sharing personal items like cups and spoons – is recommended.