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What Doctors Need You to Know About Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Coxsackievirus causes this common childhood ailment. Here's the scoop on the illness, its treatment—and everything else you need to know.

A young man is showing his hand with spots and rash from hand foot and mouth diseaseLolostock/Shutterstock

It’s common in kids, but you can get it too

While hand, foot, and mouth disease is most common in kids under five, you can still get it well past your school days. “Although it’s more common in children, adults can become infected too,” says Heather Hawthorne, MD, family practice physician at Doctor On Demand. “However, their illness is usually milder. Sometimes they have no symptoms at all, but they can still spread the infection to others.” Learn the 25 things your child’s pediatrician won’t tell you.

Hand foot and mouth diseases child,outbreak in the rainy seasonjade7117/Shutterstock

It spreads easily

People and kids pass hand, foot, and mouth disease through bodily fluids—which explains why it travels like wildfire in places that young kids congregate, like daycares and preschools. “The virus is easily spread to hard surfaces like toys and tabletops,” Dr. Hawthorne warns. “An infected person can pass the virus through fluid from the blisters of their rash, mucus in their nose, saliva, and even contact with their feces. It’s important for parents to teach children to wash their hands often and properly to help prevent infections. Effective hand washing means wetting hands with water, applying soap, and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.” To minimize the risk of catching it, just say no to hugging, kissing, or sharing utensils, cups, and other items with people who are sick with the illness. Make sure they—and you—are not making these 10 common hand-washing mistakes.

Boy with symptoms hand, foot and mouth diseaseadriaticfoto/Shutterstock

A child can be contagious for weeks

Even after the symptoms disappear, your child could still pass the illness to others. “Hand, foot, and mouth disease is contagious through oral secretions and stool,” says Michael Patrick, MD, emergency medicine physician and medical director, Interactive Media at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Once the fever and symptoms have resolved, the virus is no longer in oral secretions, but it can remain in the stool for several weeks following infection. Therefore, you can be exposed to the virus by a child who appears well and has no symptoms.” Practice good handwashing technique to help reduce the risk of passing it on. Get the scoop on some old-school illnesses that are still around.

Hand foot mouth disease in childfrank60/Shutterstock

The rash isn’t the only symptom

While the rash is a dead giveaway that you’re dealing with coxsackievirus, there are other symptoms as well. “The rash really distinguishes this virus from others and is made up of scattered small red bumps and blisters that occur primarily on the hands and feet, but can also be seen in the groin region, the remainder of the extremities, the face, and trunk,” says Dr. Patrick. “It can also cause a rash and small sores in the mouth. But coxsackievirus is an enterovirus and capable of causing a wide range of symptoms, including fever, fatigue, muscle aches, runny nose and congestion, sore throat, vomiting, and diarrhea. The fever from hand, foot, and mouth disease can be quite high.” Learn how to ID what’s behind that rash.

Treatment is just about making your kid comfortable

There’s no cure for hand, foot, and mouth disease, so treating it mainly consists of doing what it takes to keep your child comfortable. You can use over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce the pain of mouth sores and fever, and cold drinks or ice pops can help soothe mouth sores as well.

Sick child lying on couch at home having fever feeling ill. Getting well of flu.Kid with runny nose and sore throatKamelia Ilieva/Shutterstock

The illness usually lasts for more than a week

Your child may miss a fair amount of school if they get coxsackievirus—the disease usually takes five to 10 days to run its course, according to Dr. Patrick. If your child still has symptoms after 10 days, make sure you’re in touch with a doctor. Discover the underdiagnosed illnesses your doctor might miss.

mother giving water to little daughter, indian mother and daughterRehan Qureshi/Shutterstock

You need to watch out for dehydration

Painful mouth sores that come with hand, foot, and mouth disease could lead to a severe complication: dehydration. “Some children will get sores in the mouth making it painful to swallow,” Dr. Hawthone says. “If children are not drinking enough fluids because of the pain, they can get dehydrated quickly. Managing the pain and making sure children are getting enough fluids are very important.”

Hand foot and mouth diseases child,outbreak in the rainy seasonjade7117/Shutterstock

There can be more serious hand, foot, and mouth disease complications

While most cases clear up with no lasting effects, in rare cases, complications can occur. “As with other viruses, coxsackievirus can infect other areas of the body such as the brain or spinal fluid, which results in meningitis or encephalitis,” Dr. Patrick says. “It can also cause heart infections. It is important to always have severe or concerning symptoms checked out by your child’s doctor.” Get the scoop on 12 diseases you could get this summer.

Cute little mixed race baby learning to walk, mom is holding his handsTatiana Chekryzhova/Shutterstock

Your child can get it more than once

You may think that this is one of those childhood illnesses that’s one and done, but hand, foot, and mouth disease can keep coming back, according to the Mayo Clinic. Gradually, your children will build up antibodies against the virus—and that will reduce the chances that they develop it again. Don’t miss these 50 everyday mistakes that could be harming your health and how to fix them.

Lisa Milbrand
Lisa Milbrand is a writer and editor from New Jersey, who specializes in health, parenting, and travel topics. She is the author of the upcoming book, Baby Names With Character.