Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) is a viral illness most common in children under the age of 10. It seems to be seasonal and often occurs in the warm weather of summer and early autumn. It is considered a mild illness, although symptoms can be worse in babies and children under five years old. In most cases it gets better on its own within seven to ten days.
It is important to note that it has nothing to do with foot and mouth disease that affects farm animals. You cannot contract hand, foot and mouth disease from pets or other animals or give the disease to them.
The incubation period from the time of exposure to the virus to the first symptoms appearing is around three to six days. A high temperature is usually the first symptom, along with feeling unwell, poor appetite and irritability in babies and toddlers. After one or two days of these fairly non-specific symptoms, a sore throat develops with painful sores breaking out on the tongue, gums and insides of the cheeks. A day or two later, a rash appears. The rash looks like raised pink or red spots, appearing on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, sometimes on the thighs and bottom. The rash is generally not itchy. The spots turn into greyish blisters that can be painful.
The ulcers on the mouth and tongue can be quite painful and make it difficult to eat and drink. Because of this, watch for signs of dehydration in children as sores in the mouth can stop them from drinking. Dehydration is the most common complication of HFMD.
HFMD is very contagious and is easily passed to other people. The virus is present in coughs, sneezes, faecal matter and the fluid from blisters. It is very common in childcare settings because of the frequency of nappy changes, toilet training occurring and the fact that little ones often put their hands, toys and other objects in their mouths. People infected with HFMD can begin to spread it a few days before they start to develop symptoms and for about five days after the symptoms start. Adults can pass the virus on without showing any signs or symptoms. Keep kids out of school/daycare until their fever is gone and mouth sores and blisters have healed.
The virus can live on objects for several days. Simple hygiene measures will help to stop the spread of the virus – washing hands often using soap and warm water, using tissues when coughing or sneezing then disposing of the tissues quickly, not sharing cups, cutlery or towels, washing bedding and clothing in a hot wash and disinfecting common areas.
Home treatments can help treat the disease. Most important is making sure the ill person is taking in enough fluids to prevent dehydration. Give children ice to suck on, frozen yoghurt, iceblocks or icecreams to ease the discomfort of mouth sores. Cold drinks can help – milk based ones are more tolerable than acidic juices. Avoid hot, sour, salty and spicy foods. Give soft foods as these involve less chewing. Pain relievers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help relieve the pain of the mouth sores. Try rinsing the mouth with warm water after meals or a use salt water gargle several times a day to help with pain and inflammation.
Talk to your pharmacist about mouth ulcer gels, sprays and mouth washes to relieve pain and check with them as to whether children can use them.
You can be infected with hand, foot and mouth disease more than once because different viruses can cause the disease. Children will develop immunity to the disease as they get older by building antibodies to the viruses over time. It is still possible for teenagers and adults to catch the virus.
Always see your GP if your child is not getting better after seven to 10 days, if they have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery or if they seem to be dehydrated.
This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked materials, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.