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Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD): Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Published date field Last Updated:

Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If you've noticed the development of red, painful blisters inside your child's mouth, we know you may feel an initial shock of panic. It's understandable to feel alarmed, especially if you've been taking great care of their oral health. But your child may be experiencing Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease (HFMD), which has little to do with their oral hygiene.

Depending on your child's symptoms and their severity, you probably have plenty of questions. They may include, does Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease cause bad breath? What should I do if my child doesn't want to eat or drink? Let's go over what HFMD is, how it's contracted, its symptoms, treatment, and prevention, so you can get a proper diagnosis and help your child implement new habits to mitigate their chances of getting reinfected.

What Is Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD)?

HFMD comes from the Coxsackievirus, which is part of the family of nonpolio enteroviruses. Different strains of Coxsackievirus cause HFMD in different parts of the world. In the United States, Coxsackievirus A16 is one of the common causes of HFMD. It is a relatively common and mild virus. But HFMD is contagious, especially among young children in daycare and school facilities.

Contracting HFMD

HFMD is usually transmitted from person to person through saliva, stool, liquid from a popped blister, and droplets from a cough or sneeze. Because these substances are common in child care settings where there are many diaper changes and children sharing toys and putting their hands in their mouths, these spaces can be a breeding ground for HFMD.

While it can appear any time of year and in any person, HFMD most prevalent among young children (under age five) in the more temperate climates of summer and fall.

Symptoms of HFMD

HFMD symptoms will vary from child to child. Some may experience only one or two of the below symptoms, while others will experience several. Infected people can even be asymptomatic! But even if they don't have symptoms, they can still be contagious. That's why this can be such a pesky virus in high-traffic areas like daycare centers. Symptoms of HFMD include the following:

  • A fever lasting a day or two
  • Painful sores in and around the mouth
  • Skin rash with blisters on the hands and feet, which can also appear on the buttocks region
  • A poor appetite and difficulty swallowing food and water. If a child cannot drink enough liquids due to their mouth sores' pain, they may experience dehydration.
  • A general sense of being unwell or irritability in infants
  • Bad breath

Hand, Foot, and Mouth has a related infection known as Herpangina. Typical first symptoms are similar to HFMD, including fever, sore throat, and difficulty swallowing. They're followed by tiny blisters at the back of the mouth, forming large ulcers when they burst. Herpangina mostly affects children aged three to 10 during the summer and fall seasons. Fortunately, herpangina usually lasts from three to five days.

It's unknown how many people contract HFMD each year, as some people can be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.

Treatment of HFMD

There is no treatment for HFMD, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to alleviate its symptoms and help your child feel more comfortable as they recover. While most cases of HFMD will resolve on their own in a few days, you should take your child to a doctor if they're unable to drink liquids or if their symptoms worsen after a few days. Medical and dental practitioners recommend supportive HFMD treatments like over-the-counter topical analgesics to relieve pain, both orally and in other areas. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are also recommended to help relieve headaches and sore throats.

It's essential to keep your child hydrated, and IV fluids are sometimes necessary in cases where the sores in their mouth hurt too much for drinking liquids. Home care can include giving your child chips of ice, ice cream, or ice pops to suck and cold beverages to drink. We also recommend staying away from spicy, acidic, and sweet foods. Soft, cold, and hydrating foods and liquids will help alleviate discomforting symptoms, while others may exacerbate their pain.

Throughout recovery, you can also help your child keep up with their oral care routine by twice-daily gently brushing their smiles with a toothbrush made of extra soft bristles. Make sure to dispose of this toothbrush upon recovery, so it's not a source of reinfection. In most instances, a person who has contracted HFMD will be fully recovered in less than two weeks, as noted by the Cleveland Clinic.

Prevention of HFMD

Since HFMD spreads through contact with an infected person's saliva, respiratory droplets, stool, or popped blisters, top-notch hygiene is essential! Teaching your children to wash their hands after using the restroom and resisting the urge to put their hands in their mouth can help prevent the spread of HFMD. In child care environments, frequently disinfecting surfaces (including toys and other shared items) and regular handwashing are also critical. As with other contagious viruses, keep any known infected children away from others to prevent the spread.

We know that you never like the idea of your child feeling sick, whether it's mild symptoms like general discomfort or a more severe issue of managing blisters that make it hard for your child to eat and drink. But Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease is a common infection among young children, especially in daycare and school settings. While recovering, help your child stay hydrated, give them soft, cool, and comforting foods, and keep them away from other children to prevent the spread of HFMD. And your best bet for prevention is incorporating hygiene habits that will help prevent other common infections too!

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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