Hand, foot and mouth disease

If your child has hand, foot and mouth disease, keep them at home if they are unwell or have blisters. Make sure your child doesn't go to childcare or school until all the blisters have dried.

Key points to remember about hand, foot and mouth disease

  1. Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common viral illness in children.
  2. Symptoms include red or fluid-filled blisters on hands and feet or other parts of the body.
  3. Children may also get painful red blisters in their mouth.
  4. Keep your child at home until they are well again and all the blisters have dried.

What is hand, foot and mouth disease?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common viral illness in children. Human hand, foot and mouth disease is not related to foot and mouth disease in animals.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

What puts my child at risk of getting hand, foot and mouth disease?

Anyone can get hand, foot and mouth disease, but it is most common in children under 10 years old, and particularly in pre-school children. Hand, foot and mouth disease is more common in warm weather usually in the summer or early autumn. But it can happen at any time of the year.

How does hand, foot and mouth disease spread?

Hand, foot and mouth disease spreads easily between people  it's very easy to catch.

It spreads from person to person by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with mucus, saliva, blisters or the poo of an infected person. Children can also easily catch the disease by touching things like toys and then putting their hands or toys in their mouth.

Children with hand, foot and mouth disease are most likely to spread the disease in the first week, before all the blisters have dried.

What are the signs and symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease?

Mild fever is usually the first sign of hand, foot and mouth disease. This starts about 3–5 days after your child has been exposed to the disease. Hand, foot and mouth disease is usually mild and lasts about 3–7 days. As well as fever, your child may develop other symptoms.

Blisters

Your child may develop painful red blisters in their mouth.

They may also have red or fluid-filled blisters. These are usually on the palms of hands or soles of feet but can be in other places on the arms and legs. They can also appear elsewhere on your child's body. These blisters are not usually itchy or painful.

See more images of hand, foot and mouth disease.

Other symptoms

  • Loss of appetite.
  • A sore throat.
  • A general feeling of weakness or tiredness.

Very rarely (in an outbreak or with certain types of the virus) the hand, foot and mouth virus causes a more severe rash involving more of the body, or a more serious illness including inflammation of the brain or heart.

Can hand, foot and mouth disease happen more than once?

Yes, hand, foot and mouth disease can occasionally happen more than once as there are different types of the virus that cause it.

How is hand, foot and mouth disease diagnosed?

Your family doctor can usually diagnose hand, foot and mouth disease by examining your child.

Hand, foot and mouth disease can sometimes be confused with:

  • chickenpox (but the chickenpox rash is usually all over the body)
  • cold sores (herpes) in a child's mouth.

When should I seek help for my child's hand, foot and mouth disease?

You should take your child to your family doctor if:

  • they haven't been able to drink because of a painful mouth
  • they have had fewer than 4 wet nappies in 24 hours
  • they seem to be getting worse or are not getting better after a few days.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

How do I prevent hand, foot and mouth disease spreading?

Keep your child at home if they are unwell or have blisters. It is important that your child does not go back to childcare or school until all the blisters have dried.

Frequent hand washing helps decrease the chance of spreading the infection. This is because the virus is found in poo, blisters and saliva, and from a runny nose.

Take special care to wash hands:

  • after using the toilet
  • when changing nappies (the virus can be found in poo for several weeks)
  • when handling objects and toys which children hold or put in their mouths.

Staying away from others who have the disease and cleaning or not sharing toys during the infection also helps prevent spread of the disease.

How can I care for my child with hand, foot and mouth disease at home?

If your child's mouth is sore, don't give them sour, salty or spicy foods. Make sure they drink plenty of liquids to avoid getting dehydrated.

If your child is miserable with hand, foot and mouth disease, you can give them paracetamol. You must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle. It is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose. See our paracetamol dose calculator. 

Is there any treatment for hand, foot and mouth disease? 

No, there is no specific treatment for hand, foot and mouth disease.

What should I do if I'm pregnant and I'm exposed to hand, foot and mouth disease?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is rare in healthy adults, so the risk of infection during pregnancy is very low. If a pregnant woman does get the disease, the risk of complications is also very low.

But, if you catch the virus shortly before you give birth, the infection can be passed on to your baby. Most babies born with hand, foot and mouth disease have only mild symptoms.

In very rare cases it is possible that catching hand, foot and mouth disease during pregnancy may result in miscarriage. For this reason, if you have contact with hand, foot and mouth disease while you're pregnant, or if you develop any kind of rash, see your doctor or lead maternity carer, just to be safe.

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Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Health Navigator NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative.
Credits: KidsHealth NZ. Last reviewed: 18 Aug 2022