Hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common viral infection that mostly affects children under 10 years of age. Symptoms include blisters in the mouth or on hands and feet. Keep your child home until all the blisters have dried.

Key points about hand, foot and mouth disease

  1. Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common viral illness in children.
  2. Symptoms may include a fever, loss of appetite, tiredness, a sore throat and blisters (can be in the mouth, on hands and feet).
  3. Keep your child at home until they are well again and all the blisters have dried.
  4. Frequent hand washing helps decrease the chance of spreading the infection.

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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.

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, and particularly in pre-school children. Hand, foot and mouth disease is more common in warm weather, usually in the summer or early autumn.

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.

After the fever starts, your child may develop other symptoms, including:

  • painful red blisters in their mouth
  • red or fluid-filled blisters that are not itchy or painful, usually on the arms and legs (particularly on the palms of  hands, or soles of feet), but they can appear elsewhere on your child's body
  • loss of appetite
  • a sore throat and mouth
  • a general feeling of weakness or tiredness.

The disease is usually mild and lasts about 3–7 days.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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. And if a pregnant woman gets the disease, the risk of complications is also very low.

However, 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.

Learn more

Hand, foot and mouth Regional Public Health, Wellington, NZ

  Credits

Content courtesy of KidsHealth NZ which has been created by a partnership between the Paediatric Society of New Zealand (PSNZ) and the Starship Foundation, supported and funded by the Ministry of Health.

Credits: KidsHealth, NZ. Reviewed By: Health Navigator Editorial Team Last reviewed: 12 Dec 2020