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What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?

September 22, 2014

If you’re the parent of small children, odds are you’ll become familiar with hand, foot, and mouth disease at some point. It’s fairly common, but not nearly as serious as its name might suggest.

What is Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a viral illness that can affect anyone, but is most commonly seen in children under 5 years old. Along with the usual symptoms of a virus- fever, irritability and lack of appetite- children often develop small blisters or red spots on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet. Blisters may also be found in the webs between fingers and toes, or on the buttocks, and can resemble chickenpox. Children also will develop small, painful ulcers in their mouth and on their tongue.

Don’t be confused. Although the names sound alike, this illness is not related to the foot-and-mouth disease or hoof-and-mouth disease that can affect farm animals. They are caused by two different viruses; the animal virus doesn’t affect humans, and the human virus doesn’t affect animals.

Is it serious?

Although it is common and contagious, the good news is that hand, foot, and mouth disease isn’t generally a cause for alarm. Children usually recover fully from the virus within seven to ten days. However, since mouth sores can be painful, children might be reluctant to eat or drink, and dehydration can become a serious concern.

This illness can usually be treated at home by managing the pain and making your child comfortable. However, if you have concerns, call your pediatrician. If your child complains of neck pain, chest pain, trouble breathing or is unable to drink liquids, be sure to check with your doctor.

How do you get it and how can we prevent it?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is passed from person to person like any other virus. Often, children contract it from their peers in daycare, preschool, playgroups or other places where they are in close contact with others. It usually takes between 3 to 6 days after being exposed to show symptoms of the illness.

The virus can be spread through saliva, mucus, feces, coughing or sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces. Sometimes, adults may not show any symptoms, but they can still be contagious. The best defense against this or any virus is to maintain good hygiene, especially when it comes to hand-washing. Be sure to wash your hands well with soap and water after diaper changes. Disinfecting toys and contaminated surfaces can also help.

However, as we all know, sometimes it is pretty near impossible to get your toddler to understand that he can’t put his friend’s toy in his mouth or to stop your infant from chewing on just about everything in sight. If you know children who have the virus, keep your distance from them until they are better.

Know how to care for your child at home

Consider these suggestions to make your child more comfortable:
  • Provide pain and fever relief with over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (children under 12 should not receive aspirin).
  • Salt water rinses may soothe mouth discomfort if the child is able to rinse without swallowing (mix ½ teaspoon of salt in one glass of warm water).
  • To help ease pain due to mouth sores, use a liquid antacid 4 times a day after meals. Some common brand names include Maalox, Mylanta or Gaviscon. (For children over 4 years: use 1 teaspoon as a mouthwash. For children under 4 years: put half a teaspoon in the front of their mouth.)
  • Avoid hot, spicy, citrus or acidic foods. Consider ice cream, ice popsicles and cold drinks.
  • Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids. If juice or other fluids cause burning due to mouth sores, try cold milk products, which may be less irritating.
  • Be sure to keep your child at home and minimize exposure to others while contagious. After fever has resolved (usually around 3 days), it is okay for them to return to school. The rash will last longer and may cause peeling as it heals, but it is not contagious.