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Hand Foot Mouth Disease

Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease: Parent FAQs

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a common childhood virus that pediatricians, child care centers and preschools see in summer and early fall.

Most parents want to know what exactly hand, foot, and mouth disease is, how to help their child cope with the discomfort it causes, and most of all when their child can go back to child care or school. Read on for answers to these and more frequently asked questions.

What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?

Despite its scary name, hand, foot, and mouth disease is a common, contagious illness caused by different viruses. It typically affects infants and children under age 5, but older kids and adults can catch it as well.

What are the signs and symptoms?

From the time the child is exposed to hand, foot, and mouth disease, it takes 3 to 6 days for the first symptoms to show up. This is called the incubation period. It usually starts with a fever, sore throat, and runny nose—much like the common cold—but then a rash with tiny blisters may start to show up on the following body sites:

Note: One, few, or all of these body sites may have blisters.

Symptoms are the worst in the first few days but are usually completely gone within a week. Peeling of the fingers and toes after 1 to 2 weeks can happen, but it is harmless.

How is hand, foot, and mouth disease diagnosed?

Your pediatrician can tell if your child has hand, foot, and mouth disease based on the symptoms you describe and by looking at your child's mouth sores and rash. Depending on how severe your child's symptoms are, your pediatrician may collect samples from your child's throat send them to a lab for testing.

If your child is diagnosed with hand, foot, and mouth disease, make sure to inform your child's child care provider or school. They may need to inform other parents and staff members about watching for symptoms.

What is the treatment?

There isn't any medicine to treat or cure hand, foot, and mouth disease. The only thing parents can do is ease the fever and pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Call your pediatrician if your child's fever lasts more than 3 days or if he or she is not drinking fluids.

For mouth pain:

In children over age 1 year, parents can consult with their doctor as a variety of liquid mouth-soothing remedies may be useful to alleviate mouth ulcer pain. Do not use regular mouth washes, because they sting.

Avoid dehydration:

Children with hand, foot, and mouth disease need to drink plenty of fluids. Call your pediatrician now or go to the ER if you suspect your child is dehydrated. 

How long is it contagious?

You are generally most contagious during the first week of illness. But, children with hand, foot, and mouth disease may shed the virus from the respiratory tract (nose, mouth and lungs) for 1-3 weeks and in the stool for weeks to months after the infection starts.

How is hand, foot, and mouth disease spread?

The virus causing hand, foot, and mouth disease is usually spread through person-to-person contact in different ways:

Respiratory route:

Fecal-oral route:

How can I help prevent and control the spread of hand, foot, and mouth disease?

Can my child go to school or child care with hand, foot, and mouth disease?

Yes, except for when:

Note: Exclusion from child care or school will not reduce the spread of hand, foot, and mouth disease because children can spread the virus even if they have no symptoms and the virus may be present in the stool for weeks after the symptoms are gone

When can my child go back to school or child care?

A child can return to school or child care after all of the exclusion criteria (listed above) are resolved and the child feels well enough to participate. Talk with your child's pediatrician if you are not sure when your child should return to school or child care.

If my child has already had hand, foot, and mouth disease can he or she get it again?

Yes. A child can have repeat infections with the same type of virus or different viruses that cause hand, foot, and mouth disease.