Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Written by Marissa S. and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a highly contagious condition. It usually affects children under five years old, although it can occur at any age. The condition is characterized by blisters in the mouth and a rash on the hands and feet.

What Causes Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?

Strains of coxsackievirus, most commonly coxsackievirus A16, cause hand, foot, and mouth disease. Viruses can be easily spread from person to person. You or your child may contract hand, foot, and mouth disease from coughs or sneezes. You can also catch this disease by touching surfaces that have traces of the virus.

Who Is at Risk for Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?

Young children have the highest risk of catching hand, foot, and mouth disease. Risk increases if they attend daycare or school, where viruses may spread quickly. Older children and adults usually build up immunity to the disease. Hand, foot, and mouth disease is rare in people older than 10. However, infection is still possible, especially among adults with compromised immune systems.

What Are the Symptoms of Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?

Symptoms begin to develop three to seven days after infection. The characteristic blisters and rashes show up later, usually four to nine days after infection. Some or all of the following symptoms may occur during the course of the disease:

  • fever
  • poor appetite
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • irritability
  • painful, red blisters in the mouth, including on the tongue and gums
  • a red rash on the hands and the soles of the feet – this rash may be painful but usually does not itch

Diagnosing Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is usually diagnosed by physical exam. Your doctor will look for the appearance of blisters and rashes. He will also ask about your age and symptoms. Throat swabs and stool samples can be tested for the virus.

Treating Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

In most cases, this infection will clear up without treatment in a week to ten days. However, some patients need treatment for their symptoms.

Prescription or over-the-counter topical ointments may soothe blisters and rashes.

Pain medication can ease other symptoms such as headaches and sore throats. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is usually recommended.

Medicated syrups, lozenges, or salt water rinses may also relieve painful sore throats.

It is important for infected children to drink enough fluids. The acidity in some beverages can irritate tender throats.

Consult your doctor if your child refuses fluids or appears dehydrated. Severely dehydrated patients may require hospitalization and intravenous (IV) fluids.

In rare cases, coxsackievirus can cause more serious conditions such as meningitis and encephalitis. If symptoms get worse, or do not clear up within ten days, seek immediate medical help.

What Is to Be Expected in the Long Term?

You should feel completely better within five to seven days of your first symptoms. Re-infection is uncommon. Usually the body builds up immunity to the viruses that cause the disease.

If you have not recovered within ten days, or your symptoms get worse, call your doctor immediately. In rare cases, coxsackievirus can cause a medical emergency.

How Can Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease Be Prevented?

Good hygiene is the best protection against hand, foot, and mouth disease. Regular hand washing can reduce your risk of contracting this virus.

Teach your children how to wash their hands using hot water and soap. Hands should always be washed after using the restroom, before eating, and after being out in public. Children should also be taught not to put their hands or other objects in or near their mouths.

Avoid contact with individuals who aren’t feeling well. The telltale blisters and rashes caused by hand, food, and mouth disease do not appear until the virus has been contagious for several days. If you or your child experience symptoms such as fever, sore throat, or headache, stay home from school or work. This can help you avoid spreading the disease to others.

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