It happens every year: our children head back to school, brimming with pep and enthusiasm — and return home with every nasty germ known to humankind, poised to take down the entire family (maybe even the block), like a modern-day nuclear holocaust. This usually happens within the first couple of weeks of school, like clockwork. You’ve got your usual offenders: the common cold, the flu, and various stomach viruses. And then there’s Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease…
What is Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?
Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD) is a viral illness that belongs to the Enterovirus group. The viruses that cause this disease — commonly found in daycares and preschools — can be found in an infected person’s throat and nose secretions, blister fluid, and feces (poop). Pretty gross, right?
The virus is spread through close personal contact (kissing), contact with respiratory droplets containing virus particles (through coughing and sneezing), contact with feces (for example, while changing diapers), and contact with contaminated objects and surfaces (like touching doorknobs). The virus usually affects children and babies five years and younger but can sometimes occur in adults. While you can become infected by swallowing recreational water (like in a swimming pool), the CDC says this is not very common. However, it’s more common if the water is contaminated with feces from an infected person (a small child who has an accident in a public pool).
What are the symptoms?
Outbreaks of the disease are most common during the warm summer and early fall months. Just in time for back-to-school! Diagnosis is made clinically with the history and visual examination and does not usually require any testing. Keep an eye out for these symptoms:
- Reduced appetite
- Sore throat
- General malaise (feeling unwell)
- Painful sores in the mouth may develop
- A skin rash with red spots (and sometimes blisters) may appear on the hands, the soles of the feet, the knees, the elbows, the buttocks, or genitals.
Are there complications?
Young children with HFMD may become dehydrated —because they can’t swallow liquids (due to painful mouth sores). Other resulting health complications are (mostly) uncommon. However, viral meningitis, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), or polio-like paralysis can occur, BUT instances are highly rare. That’s a relief! Adults may be asymptomatic but can still pass on the virus.
Someone with HFMD is most contagious during the first week of illness, often before the rash develops and diagnosis is clear. This causes it to spread quickly and easily across daycare and school settings, making it challenging to prevent and control community outbreaks. It may take 3-5 days for someone to show symptoms after exposure to an infected person. It’s best to stay home from work and school as soon as there is a concern for illness. And always consult your physician before returning.
How can you prevent the spread of HFMD?
There are several ways we can reduce or prevent the spread of this virus. Wash your hands and help wash your child’s hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, you may use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Specifically, be sure to wash your hands after changing diapers, after contact with your face and bodily secretions, as well as before and after caring for someone who is ill. Additionally, it is important to disinfect frequently touched surfaces and shared items, such as doorknobs and toys. Do your best to avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. Avoid close contact with people who are ill. Always stay home if you or your child are sick, especially if there is fever, new lesions erupting, or open sores.
How is HFMD treated?
The mainstay treatment for HFMD is supportive care and comfort measures. This is a self-limited illness, and symptoms typically resolve within 7-10 days. Several things help make it more manageable, such as good skincare, ensuring adequate hydration, and fever control. You may provide over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen for symptom relief. If you are concerned about your child’s symptoms, consult your pediatrician, as additional treatment options may be available.