What Is Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease? + 17 Natural Treatments
Hand, foot and mouth disease, or HFMD as it is commonly known, is a highly contagious viral illness that usually affects young children. In the United States, summer and early fall are the most common times for outbreaks; however, in more tropical areas of the nation, outbreaks can occur any time of the year.
Hand, foot and mouth disease is frequently found in childcare settings where frequent diaper changes and potty training allows the virus to spread quickly from person to person. In fact, older teens and adults may never experience signs or symptoms of HFMD; however, they can still transmit it during the first week or so the virus is active.
Children can continue to spread the disease for weeks, or even months, after the signs and symptoms have dissipated as the virus actively lives in feces. It is essential that good hygiene practices are taught from an early age. Also, household surfaces including bathroom fixtures, doorknobs, countertops and toys should be thoroughly disinfected regularly.
The good news is that hand, foot and mouth disease is rarely serious and severe complications are extremely rare. But, with a healthy immune system, as we age, we develop a natural immunity to the disease, building antibodies after an initial exposure to the virus. Treatments for HFMD focus on providing comfort, relieving pain, preventing dehydration, and strengthening the immune system.
What Is Hand Foot and Mouth Disease?
This common viral illness primarily affects infants and children under the age of 5. However, older children, teens, and adults can all contract hand, foot and mouth disease. A few days after exposure to the virus, painful sores appear in the mouth, hands, and feet — explaining the name for the disease. Some people may also experience painful lesions on the buttocks, legs, and elbows.
Generally, an HFMD outbreak doesn’t last too long. In fact, for most people with a properly functioning immune system, the symptoms go away after a week or 10 days. While similar in name, it is in no way related to hoof and mouth disease that affects livestock including cows, pigs, sheep, goats and deer. Different viruses cause the two diseases and they are not related. Humans don’t get the animal disease and animals don’t get the human disease.
Common Signs and Symptoms
The incubation period for hand, foot and mouth disease is typically between three and six days, and people are generally asymptomatic during this time. The first signs after exposure to the virus include general malaise, reduced appetite, sore throat and a slight fever. A couple of days after that, the painful sores start to develop, often first appearing in the mouth.
Next, small red spots appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and the spread of the rash may end there. Or, the rash may spread to the buttocks, elbows, knees and even genitals. Then, as the red spots morph into blisters, they will start to break open and crust over. The fluid inside contains the virus. So, it is imperative to wash hands and any household items that may have come into contact with the fluid.
Causes and Risk Factors
The question often arises, how do you get hand, foot and mouth disease and the answer is: from bodily fluids. This disease is most often transmitted through secretions from the nose and throat. But the fluid from the blisters and feces can also transmit the virus. The virus can spread through close personal contact as the virus is airborne. Also, it can live on a variety of objects and surfaces for quite some time. In addition, it is possible to get hand, foot and mouth disease by swimming in non-chlorinated water; however, transmission is considered unlikely.
The viruses that cause HFMD belong to the enterovirus group. The most common cause in the United States is the Coxsackievirus A16 virus, but the Enterovirus 71 is also associated with outbreaks. Risk factors for the disease include:
- Age: being an infant or young child not yet exposed to the virus
- Environment: spending time with young children in close quarters, such as childcare centers
- Poor hygiene practices: not washing hands enough, particularly when in a group of children
A special note about preventing HFMD:
According to a study published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life may help protect against some infections. The study found that the protection lasted 28 months, and that breastfeeding acts as a natural protection against a variety of infections, including hand, foot and mouth disease.
Hand, foot and mouth disease is typically diagnosed by an examination of the sores and rashes. Some physicians may order throat swabs and feces tests to determine the type of virus. There are no specific treatments recommended for HFMD. Doctors may recommend over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain and fever, as well as a topical oral anesthetic to relieve the pain in the mouth. Symptoms usually resolve in seven to 10 days.