This question actually came from my husband — he asked it when I told him I was sure that was causing the symptoms that our toddler son was having. Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a very contagious viral illness that usually strikes kids younger than age 5 — toddlers like my Beau are especially susceptible. It’s usually mild and goes away on its own. Because it is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t cure it.
The incubation period — that’s the time from when the person is exposed to the illness to the time that symptoms actually develop — is about three to five days. The first symptom is usually fever, followed by poor appetite, irritability, and just not feeling well. A couple of days later, blisters in the mouth develop, followed by rash on the feet, hands and buttocks. It usually runs its course in a week or so.
The most common complication of hand, foot and mouth disease is dehydration caused from drinking less because of the painful mouth blisters. Because of this, it’s important to be sure that your child is getting adequate fluids. Cold drinks, popsicles or milkshakes will soothe the mouth and provide fluid intake. Call your child’s doctor if you are worried that he or she is not getting enough fluids, especially if signs of dehydration are present: no tears, dry skin, very dry mouth, or decreased urine output.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is spread from the infected saliva, stool, and nasal secretions of those who have it. It can also be spread from the fluid that is in the blisters. So it’s important to practice good handwashing to prevent the illness from spreading. You may also wish to disinfect surfaces that someone with hand, foot, and mouth disease has touched or played with. Avoid kissing or sharing eating utensils with someone with hand, foot and mouth disease.
Children with hand, foot and mouth disease will need to stay home from school or childcare while they have a fever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that people with hand, foot and mouth disease are most contagious during the first week that they have the illness. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children can return to school or childcare when the fever is gone, which is usually two to three days. The bottom line: you will need to speak to your child’s doctor to determine when your child can return to school or childcare.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is so common, it’s almost a rite of childhood. Luckily, most cases are mild and can be managed at home. Be sure to call your child’s pediatrician for any questions or unusual symptoms.
Beth Heath is the county nurse manager for the Madison County Health Department.