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Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

This childhood illness is making an appearance at many college campuses
November 7, 2018

Hand, foot and mouth disease has moved beyond the playground and has been infecting college campuses in the United States. The disease is marked by an unpleasant set of symptoms that have led to its name, including blisters in the mouth, hands and feet.

An expert from the Texas A&M College of Nursing breaks down hand, foot and mouth disease. Turns out the tips to keep it from running rampant across kindergarten classes is the same to keep it out of your collegiate social circle.

What is hand, foot and mouth disease?

Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) is a very common viral infection that typically affects children younger than 5 years old. It is usually transmitted through saliva, nose and throat secretions, feces and the fluid from the blisters on the skin.

The disease can be caused by multiple viruses from the enterovirus genus (group) and is more active between summer and fall months. Similar to how flu season lasts between winter and early spring, HFMD season resides in the warmer part of the calendar.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent HFMD, and because the disease is caused by several different viruses, it is possible for someone to get the disease again.

Also, don’t confuse HFMD with foot-and-mouth disease—a viral infection that affects cattle, sheep and swine. People don’t generally get foot-and-mouth disease (the last confirmed human case was in 1966), and animals don’t get HFMD.

Symptoms of HFMD

HFMD usually begins with a fever, sore throat, and a general feeling of being sick. Then the telltale symptom of this infection appears: a painful red rash, bumps or blisters—typically on the hands, feet or mouth (hence the appropriate name). It may also appear on the knees, elbows, buttocks or genital area.

The infection can also present fluid-filled spots. It’s not a secondary infection: It’s just part of the virus and can be contagious. The spots may blister and can become ulcers. A low-grade fever (about 101 degrees Fahrenheit or lower) can also be present.

“The main concern with HFMD is dehydration,” said Alison Pittman, PhD, MSN, CPN, RN, CNE, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. “Sufferers may not want to eat or drink because swallowing hurts, so cool liquids should be encouraged to hydrate and soothe the throat.”

She also said that very rarely, complications such as viral meningitis can occur. Call your doctor for symptoms such as severe head and/or neck pain, change in behavior or alertness or changes in breathing.

When older children or adults are infected, they may not show symptoms but can still pass the virus to others. Because of this, it’s important to make sure you’re practicing good prevention techniques.

Treatment and prevention

Because the infection is viral, antibiotics have no effect on HFMD. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be given as directed by a provider for pain and fever.

“The biggest thing people can do to lower risk of getting HFMD is to WASH HANDS—especially after using the toilet, changing diapers, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing,” says Pittman. “Avoid close contact or sharing food items with people with HFMD, as it can be spread through saliva, nose and throat secretions, feces and the fluid from the blisters on the skin.” It might also be helpful to sanitize surfaces around the home and place of work with disinfectant wipes or spray, or household bleach solutions.

“Generally, HFMD sufferers are contagious for about a week and should stay home from school or work as recommended by their providers,” Pittman said.

Anyone infected by the disease should not resume normal activities until they are fever-free and symptom-free.

She also recommends anyone who is concerned about symptoms in themselves or their child to contact their health care provider.

— Mary Leigh Meyer

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