What is hand-foot-and-mouth disease?

Q: What is hand-foot-and-mouth disease? How is it treated?

A: Hand-foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD), also referred to as coxsackie virus, is a common and contagious spring, summer, and early autumn illness that commonly strikes infants and children. It is characterized by ulcers in the mouth and a blistery rash on the hands and feet, and is spread through contact with other infected kids, especially from sharing things like toys, playground equipment, and grocery carts. The illness starts with symptoms like a fever, sore throat, and poor appetite; the sores pop up in the mouth one or two days after the fever spikes. At first, they look like small red spots, which eventually blister and become ulcers. The skin rash also develops over one to two days, and looks like flat or raised red spots or blisters on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and occasionally on the butt. As soon as you suspect HFMD, call your pediatrician, who will have you come in to confirm the diagnosis. You should then let your child's school or daycare center know that the other kids and teachers have been exposed. It's important to remember that symptoms of HFMD can vary: A child may get only the skin rash or mouth ulcers (without the fever or sore throat), so you should report any suspicious symptoms to your pediatrician even if your child only seems to have one or two.

There's nothing you can do to get rid of the virus, which usually takes a week to 10 days to run its course. Although coxsackie looks awful, the rash does not itch and is usually not painful. The mouth ulcers and sore throat can be uncomfortable for kids and make eating tough, but sometimes numbing ointments used for teething or mouth rinses with topical anesthetics can temporarily ease the pain. Have your child drink cool beverages (but avoid acidic things like orange and grapefruit juice, which will sting). You can also give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen (never aspirin, which could cause a serious condition called Reye's syndrome) to help with the fever and also provide some relief from the sore throat and mouth ulcers.

HFMD should not be confused with foot-and-mouth disease, which is caused by a totally different virus and affects only farm animals like cows, pigs, and sheep, not humans. It's difficult to completely prevent coxsackie, but you should encourage your child to wash her hands frequently (especially after trips to the playground) and be sure your school, camp, or daycare center is regularly disinfecting toys and playground equipment.

Copyright 2009 Meredith Corporation.