Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) is a contagious viral disease caused by a virus. Infants and children younger than age 5 are most likely to get the virus. But older children, teens, and adults can get it, too. While one of several viruses can cause it, the signs are usually the same:
- Sores or blisters inside and outside the mouth
- A rash (red spots) or sores on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
Hand foot and mouth disease can occur at any time of year but is most common in the summer and fall. The illness usually doesn’t last more than a week or so. You can get it more than once because several different viruses causes the illness.
You cannot get hand, foot and mouth disease from animals. Because animals get a different disease called foot-and-mouth disease. Foot-and-mouth disease only develops in animals that have hooves, such as cows, sheep, and pigs.
You can catch HFMD from having close contact with a person who has it. You can also catch it when you touch something, such as a toy or doorknob, contaminated with a virus that causes this disease.
What causes hand, foot and mouth disease?
The main causes of HFMD are two different types of enteroviruses says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These includes:
- Coxsackievirus A16. This is typically the most common cause of hand, foot and mouth disease in the United States. But other coxsackieviruses can also cause the illness.
- Enterovirus 71. This has also been associated with cases and outbreaks of hand, foot, and mouth disease. It is mostly in children in East and Southeast Asia.
Several types of enteroviruses may be identified in outbreaks of hand, foot and mouth disease, but most of the time, only one or two enteroviruses are identified.
How do you get it?
Hand, foot and mouth is contagious and spreads easily. People may pick up the virus that causes HFMD and spread it in the following ways, according to the CDC:
- Through close personal contact, such as hugging an infected person.
- Being exposed to an infected person’s saliva and nasal secretions, which may contain the virus, while they are coughing or sneezing.
- Having contact with feces, such as changing diapers of an infected person.
- Direct contact with contaminated objects and surfaces, such as touching a doorknob that has viruses on it.
- By touching an infected person’s blister fluid.
It’s also possible to get HFMD when you swallow water from a swimming pool that has particles of infected feces. This is less common and happens when a pool is maintained poorly.
Generally, a person with hand, foot, and mouth disease is most contagious during the first week of illness. People can sometimes be contagious for days or weeks after symptoms go away.
What are the symptoms?
When a child gets HFMD, most signs and symptoms clear within 7 to 10 days. He or she may experience the following symptoms:
Then in 1 – 2 days, mouth sores or blisters may appear in or on the mouth and on the hands, feet, and sometimes the buttocks. It may also appear on the knees, elbows, buttocks or genital area. In some cases a skin rash may appear before the blisters do. The blisters may break open and crust over.
The sores and blisters usually go away in a week or so. Children also experience dehydration because it hurts for them to swallow and they refuse to eat or drink. In some cases there are no symptoms, or they are very mild. Parents may get the disease from their children and not even realize it.
How do doctors diagnose hand, foot and mouth disease?
Most doctors can diagnose HFMD by:
- Looking at the rash and mouth sores
- Considering the patient’s age
- Asking about symptoms
Sometimes, your doctor will swab your mouth or get a stool sample. In a laboratory, these can be checked for viruses that cause HFMD. The lab can test for the virus and rule out other possible causes of the symptoms.
Hand, foot and mouth disease treatment
There is no cure for hand, foot, and mouth disease. This disease goes away on its own without treatment. In most cases, your child get better within 7 to 10 days. 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). 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 salt water to relieve sore throat pain. To prepare, combine ½ teaspoon salt with 1 glass of warm water and stir.
- Offer your child plenty of cool fluids to help with sore throat. Cold foods such as flavored ice pops and ice cream also may help.
- Avoid giving your child any food that is spicy or acidic. These foods can make the mouth sores more painful.
- Soft foods may be easier to eat with a sore mouth, so try foods such as soups, ice cream, smoothies and mashed potato.
- Kids with blisters on their hands or feet should keep the areas clean and uncovered. Wash the skin with lukewarm soap and water, and pat dry. If a blister pops, dab on a bit of antibiotic ointment. This is to help prevent infection and cover it with a small bandage.
Hand foot and mouth disease is contagious. Besides, there is currently no vaccine for HFMD. But you can lower your risk of catching it. The CDC recommends the following:
1. Wash your hands with soap and water often. Hand washing is especially important:
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or potty training
- Before eating
- Before preparing food
You’ll find other times the CDC recommends hand washing and how to effectively wash your hands at: When and how to wash your hands.Because soap and water may not always be available, it can help to carry a travel-size hand sanitizer with you.
2. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. If a virus that causes HFMD is on a doorknob, toy, or other surface, you can get HFMD by touching the surface and later your face. The virus can get inside your body through your mouth, eyes, or nose.
3. Avoid close contact with anyone who has HFMD. This disease often spreads when the infected person coughs or sneezes. Until you’re sure the person can no longer spread the virus to others, try to avoid getting too close, if possible.
Most people are no longer contagious after 7 to 10 days, but it can take longer. Because the virus can spread with close contact, it also helps to stop kissing, hugging, and sharing food with the infected person.
4. Disinfect counters, doorknobs, and other surfaces that people frequently touch. The virus that causes HFMD can spread from one person to another when you touch an infected surface. Disinfecting counters, doorknobs, toys, and other surfaces can help prevent the disease from spreading.
What about pregnant women and HMFD?
Because so few adults, including pregnant women, get hand, foot and mouth disease, it is hard to predict the risk to an unborn child. From experience, doctors say it is very unlikely that the unborn baby will be harmed if a pregnant woman gets hand-foot-and-mouth disease or is around someone who has the disease. The most likely time the unborn child could be harmed is in the first trimester. But even then the risk is small.