What to Know About Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease

Learn more about the symptoms and treatment for this childhood illness
child with hand foot and mouth disease

Your child is cranky, running a fever and developing a rash. Once they start refusing to eat, you contact your pediatrician’s office — only to learn that this lack of appetite is due to mouth sores from a common but highly infectious childhood illness, hand, foot and mouth disease

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“Like most viruses, it’s fairly contagious,” says pediatrician Dana Schmidt, MD. “So in a daycare or school setting, it can spread very quickly.”

Caused by a strain of the coxsackievirus, hand, foot and mouth disease is best known for the blister-like rash it causes on the hands, feet and mouth. However, this rash can appear all over the body. When someone only has blisters in their mouth, but not hands and feet, it’s called herpangina (and the advice below applies to this too).      

Dr. Schmidt explains more about this common and highly contagious illness.

What are the first symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease?

The first symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease that show up include fever, lack of appetite, sore throat and a runny nose. A day or two later, a blister-like rash appears on the hands, feet or mouth.

“Typically, we see most cases in the warmer spring and summer months, but since it’s an infection that’s easily spread, it can be seen at any time of the year,” says Dr. Schmidt.

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How is hand, foot and mouth disease spread?

Hand, foot and mouth disease spreads through direct contact with these blisters, as well as the droplets expelled when you sneeze or cough. The virus can also be passed along in poop, so be sure to wash your hands right away if you’re changing diapers, pull-ups or otherwise come in to contact at home or working at a daycare. But it’s important to note that it can also be passed via shared utensils, towels and clothing, as well as physical contact and by touching contaminated surfaces and toys.

How long is a person with hand, foot and mouth disease contagious?

You are most contagious during the first few days of being sick, often before the blisters appear. Once these blisters dry up, you are less likely to pass on the virus.

Can adults get hand, foot and mouth disease?

Yes. Hand, foot and mouth disease is very common and usually affects infants and children under the age of 5. But because it’s so infectious, it can spread among family members and also make older kids, teenagers and adults sick.

Can you get hand, food and mouth disease twice?

Yes. Because multiple viruses can cause hand, foot and mouth disease, it is possible to catch the virus multiple times.

Is this related to foot-and-mouth disease?

No. Hand, foot and mouth disease has nothing to do with foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep and swine. In fact, both diseases are caused by different viruses — and animals can’t even get hand, foot and mouth disease.

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How to treat and prevent hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease has no specific treatment, although the CDC reports that most people get better on their own within seven to 10 days. However, you can treat symptoms of the virus with over-the-counter pain medications.

It’s also important to stay hydrated, as dehydration is a common side effect. Avoid foods and drinks that are acidic, like orange juice, because they can irritate mouth sores. Stick to milder or cold foods. Older children and adults may also relieve some discomfort with salt water gargles, although this treatment isn’t recommended for infants, toddlers or younger children.

Be especially vigilant if hand, foot and mouth disease symptoms become severe, or if you or your child has a weak immune system or becomes dehydrated. If you or your child’s fever does not go away after three days — or if all symptoms don’t improve after 10 days — see a doctor.

Tips to reduce the spread of hand, foot and mouth disease

You can do several things to prevent or reduce the spread of hand, foot and mouth disease:

  • Wash your hands often, especially after changing diapers.
  • Disinfect any contaminated surfaces with a water and bleach or sanitizing wipes.
  • Wash your child’s clothing, bedding and any other soiled items.
  • Stay away from other people, especially during the first few days of the illness. If your child becomes infected, prevent spread by keeping them home from daycare, school or any other group activity. If you are infected, be sure to stay home from work or school.

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