You are using an older version of Internet Explorer that is not supported on this site. Please upgrade for the best experience.

How to Protect Your Family from Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

September 15, 2016
Washing a child's hands

A viral infection called “hand, foot, and mouth” disease has recently hit Florida State University. Dr. Louis Strauss, medical director of Baystate’s Urgent Care Centers, discusses what you need to know about this highly contagious illness.  

What causes HFMD?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is a contagious viral infection that causes sores in or on the mouth and on the hands, feet, and sometimes the buttocks and legs. It is most common in children ages 3 to 10, but can also occur in adults. It is most common in the summer and fall.  

HFMD is caused by a virus called an enterovirus. The virus spreads easily through coughing and sneezing, as well as through infected stool, such as when you change a diaper or when a young child gets stool on his or her hands and then touches objects that other children put in their mouths. The virus can live on surfaces for several hours. Often the disease breaks out within a community, such as day care centers and schools.  

What are the symptoms?

Once infected, it can take several days for symptoms to develop. At first you may feel tired, get a sore throat, or have a fever of around 101°F to 103°F. In a day or two, sores or blisters may appear, and may be painful. The blisters may break open and crust over. The sores and blisters usually go away in a week or so. Sometimes a skin rash appears before the blisters. 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.  

People are most contagious in the first week of illness, but the virus may still be present a week or two after symptoms resolve, longer in children and those with weakened immune systems.  

How is it treated?

As a viral infection, HFMD needs to run its course. However, you can treat the symptoms:

  • Cool fluids and flavored ice pops can help with a sore throat and help prevent dehydration.
  • Avoid acidic or spicy foods and drinks, such as salsa or orange juice, which can make mouth sores more painful.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), can help with pain and fever. Never give a child aspirin, which can result in a serious condition called Reyes Syndrome.  

Can HFMD be prevented?

Frequent hand washing (with soap and water or alcohol-based hand gels) by both sick and well people is the key to reducing transmission. It is especially important to wash your hands after you change the diaper of an infected child.

Other ways to help the disease from spreading include:

  • Handle diapers and fecal waste carefully, and dispose of them properly.
  • Disinfect contaminated surfaces (like changing tables) using a solution of household bleach (1 tablespoon) and water (4 cups).
  • Wear latex or rubber gloves if you apply any cream or ointment to your child's blisters.
  • While infected, don't let your child share toys, cups and utensils, or towels; or give kisses. If your child goes to day care, talk to the staff about when your child can return.  

When should I seek medical care?

Seek medical care if you or your child has a rash, fever, seizure, severe headache, stiff neck, chest pain, or shortness of breath. Mild symptoms may be handled over the phone; more severe symptoms require a trip to the patient’s primary care provider or to an urgent care center.