a pair of children's hands palms up

Does my child have hand, foot and mouth disease?

Due to children’s weaker immune systems, they’re vulnerable to some illnesses that don’t generally impact adolescents and adults.

One of these ailments is hand, foot and mouth disease, a common illness caused by a virus. It generally affects children up to 10 years old, but children age 5 and younger are the most susceptible.

What are the symptoms?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is sometimes mistaken for other illnesses, such as chickenpox, insect bites or herpes. The telltale symptoms are:

  • Painless, red rash on the palms of hands, soles of feet and, occasionally, the diaper area; appears flat or as small bumps or blisters
  • Tiny mouth sores on the tongue and inside of the cheeks; can also appear on the gums and back of the throat

Other symptoms generally include:

  • Drooling
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Rash over the rest of the body
  • Sore throat

How does it spread?

The virus usually spreads a couple of ways:

  • Contact with stool from an infected person, which happens when someone doesn’t wash their hands sufficiently after using the bathroom or changing a diaper
  • Contact with oral and respiratory droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, drools or talks

How is it treated?

“There is no vaccine or other specific treatment other than managing symptoms, which typically last about seven days,” said Raghu Kasetty, MD, a pediatrician at OSF HealthCare. “While the skin rashes are rarely painful, the mouth sores do hurt and can make eating and drinking difficult. So, it’s recommended that parents relieve these symptoms with acetaminophen, which can also be used to treat fever and other pain. Ibuprofen can also be given to children over 6 months old.”

But at what point should a parent take their child to see a doctor?

“A doctor visit is necessary when a child has a fever higher than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, significant throat pain or is refusing to drink fluids,” Dr. Kasetty said. “Sometimes, fluid intake can be difficult for children due to mouth sores. However, it’s absolutely essential because they’ll become dehydrated if they don’t drink enough fluids. If that happens, they may have to go to a hospital emergency department or be admitted to a hospital to receive fluids through an IV.”

Symptoms of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, lack of tears, not urinating for eight to 10 hours, sunken eyes and fatigue.

Eating can also be difficult due to the mouth sores, so it’s important to avoid citrus fruits and juices as well as salty, spicy foods. Instead, a soft diet is recommended, which includes food like:

  • Applesauce
  • Cheese
  • Chicken
  • Cottage cheese
  • Deli meats
  • Fresh fruit
  • Refried beans
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Soft, cooked vegetables
  • Tuna
  • Turkey
  • Yogurt

How long to quarantine?

It’s not practical to wait until a child is 100% free of the virus before allowing them to resume their normal daily routine around other children.

“The virus is present in stool for six weeks to a few months and in oral and respiratory secretions for up to four weeks. So, it’s just not possible to avoid sending a child to school or daycare for that entire amount of time,” Dr. Kasetty said. “The best rule of thumb is a child can return to activities around other kids once they have no fever for 24 hours, have no open sores and don’t excessively drool.”

An ounce of prevention

Parents can help children avoid this illness by encouraging frequent hand washing – especially after going to the bathroom and before eating – and by avoiding touching their eyes, mouth and nose. Parents can also help kill germs that may be lurking around the house by using disinfecting wipes on frequently touched surfaces, such as door knobs, faucet handles, light switches, etc.

Last Updated: March 14, 2024

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About Author: Luke Legner

Luke Legner is a writing coordinator at OSF HealthCare. He joined the Ministry in April 2021 after several years working in corporate communications in the heavy equipment industry. A Pontiac native, he graduated from Illinois State University in 2002 where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication.

Luke and his wife, Ashley, reside in Bloomington and have one son and two daughters. When he’s not tackling a home improvement project, you can usually find Luke watching his beloved Chicago Cubs or The Andy Griffith Show.

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Categories: General, Kids & Family