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What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?
Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is a fairly common viral illness in children. (HFMD is not the same as foot-and-mouth disease, also called hoof-and-mouth disease, which affects animals.)
HFMD can be caused by a number of viruses, most commonly the coxsackie virus. This illness occurs most often in children younger than 5, although anyone can get it – even adults. Adults have developed antibodies and are immune to most of the viruses, but they can still get sick if infected by a different virus.
HFMD outbreaks tend to happen in the spring, summer, and fall. Children usually recover without treatment in a week to 10 days, but in very rare cases HFMD can lead to viral meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
What are the symptoms of HFMD in a child?
HFMD in children usually starts with a mild fever, and you may notice that your child's appetite isn't what it usually is. He may also have a sore throat and feel lousy in general.
A day or two after the fever starts, your child may develop painful sores in his mouth – especially on the sides of his tongue, in the back of his mouth, or inside his cheeks. They may also develop on his gums. It's likely that discomfort from mouth sores will make him irritable.
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Your child may also develop a rash on the palms of his hands, the soles of his feet, and possibly his buttocks. The rash may look like small, flat, red dots at first, and eventually turn into bumps or blisters. The rash doesn't itch.
Is HFMD contagious?
Yes, the virus can be transmitted through nose and throat secretions, the fluid in the blisters, or stool. The disease is most contagious during the week your child first shows symptoms, but the virus can be transmitted for weeks afterward.
If your child goes to daycare or school, let the staff know that your child was diagnosed with HFMD in case they need to inform other parents and staff members to watch for symptoms.
Keep your child at home if she:
- Has a fever
- Doesn't seem well enough to participate in class
- Is drooling excessively
- Has open blisters (which usually dry up in about seven days)
- Meets your school's criteria for keeping a sick child at home
Check with your child's doctor if you aren't sure when your child can return to daycare or school.
Should I call the doctor if I think my child has HFMD?
Yes, your child's doctor can confirm it with an examination. Although the doctor won't be able to do much in terms of treating HFMD, she can recommend options for fever and pain relief.
Your child's doctor will also check whether your child is dehydrated because mouth sores can make it difficult for him to drink anything. If you notice that your child has signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or producing less urine than usual, call his doctor immediately.
Also call the doctor immediately if your child is younger than 3 months and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. (An infant with a fever this high needs medical attention right away.)
How do I care for my child while she has HFMD?
If your child has a relatively mild case, you won't have to do much more than watch her temperature and make sure she's drinking and eating enough. However, if your child develops a severe case of HFMD, she can feel really miserable. Be prepared to do plenty of comforting in addition to coaxing her to drink enough.
Also, don't give your child salty, spicy, or acidic foods while her mouth hurts. Soft foods will be easiest for her to handle. Cold drinks, ice cream, and ice pops can also ease discomfort.
If your child's doctor says it's okay, giving your child the proper dose of acetaminophen (if she's at least 3 months old) or ibuprofen (if she's at least 6 months old) can also help. (Never give a child aspirin. It can lead to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disorder.)
If your child is older than 12 months, ask her doctor about different liquid remedies to soothe her mouth sores.
How can I prevent HFMD?
Your best bet for preventing HFMD is to take such precautions as washing your child's hands regularly, washing and disinfecting toys and other objects that might have germs on them, and trying to avoid infected children. Still, it's impossible to guarantee that your child won't catch the illness if he's exposed to an infected person.
Can my child get HFMD more than once?
Yes, your child can come down with HFMD again. As with colds, your child will develop immunity to the specific virus that made her sick, but many viral strains can cause the illness.
What if I'm pregnant when my child comes down with HFMD?
If you're exposed to HFMD during pregnancy, the chance that your developing baby will be affected is very small, but mention it to your healthcare provider anyway, just to be safe. Wash your hands frequently, especially after changing diapers or tending to your sick child. You also might want to consider wearing gloves to keep your risk to a minimum.