Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is a common illness that can afflict young kids, typically before the age of 5. (It gets its name from all the places where sores and rashes can appear.) It's primarily caused by coxsackie, a virus that usually finds its way into the body through oral fecal contamination--meaning that somehow, some way, your child ingested contaminated poop. The virus then hangs out for about a week before making its presence known.
"It first mimics many other viral infections; it starts with fever and possible respiratory symptoms," says Stephen Pishko, M.D., assistant professor of the general pediatrics division at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center and LeBonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis. A few days later, the mouth sores--called herpangina--can appear, and be quite painful for your kid. If it hurts to swallow, your child may need a lot of coaxing to eat and drink. Once the body rash arrives about a day later, HFMD is almost on its way out. Symptoms should subside by the end of a week.
Kids can pick up the virus in different ways, most commonly by not washing their hands well enough after using the bathroom. "Your child will be most contagious during the first part of the illness, when they're experiencing the actual symptoms," says Dr. Pishko, "especially when he has the fever." That said, to reduce the spread of the virus, parents should keep their child out of day care or school until the symptoms subside.
HMFD can usually run its course at home, unless your child is showing signs of dehydration. Watch for a dry mouth, extreme thirst, significantly less urine output, and a lack of energy. In that case, call your doctor.
Over the counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) can help reduce the fever and any pain associated with the mouth sores. Dr. Pishko also recommends a one-to-one mixture of Benadryl and Maalox, to swish and spit, to help numb the mouth pain prior to mealtime, he says. Finally, skip the salty and citrusy stuff; these will only make your child--and the sores--even more irritated.
"The body rash doesn't itch, so topical treatments won't really affect it or shorten the course of the rash," says Dr. Pishko. "But it can go to other parts of the body, too, sometimes appearing on the buttocks, arms and legs."
The best way to minimize the spread of any virus is to keep hands clean--your child's and your own. "Teach your children good hand-washing habits," says Dr. Pishko. "That will be the most helpful in reducing the spread of any virus."
The good news is that as children age, their immune systems mature. They could still contract HMFD, but the second episode might not be as bad as the first. "Once a body sees a virus for the second time," Dr. Pishko says, "the immune response kicks in and symptoms could be much more mild."