What is hand, foot and mouth disease?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common viral infection. A mild illness, it mainly affects children who are under five years of age, usually during the warmer weather. The virus is spread by direct contact with fluid from the blisters, nasal discharge or faecal matter of an infected person. The virus can be found in the faeces several weeks after the symptoms have disappeared.

Viral infection

An infection with a virus, a microscopic infectious agent that only replicates within cells of other living organisms.

Causes and risk factors

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a viral infection, usually caused by a group of ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses called coxsackieviruses, which belong to the Enterovirus genus and Picornaviridae family. These viruses spread by contact with infected children.

Coxsackieviruses

A group of viruses that can cause mild flu-like symptoms or conditions such as hand, foot and mouth disease.

Viral infection

An infection with a virus, a microscopic infectious agent that only replicates within cells of other living organisms.

Signs and symptoms

Hand, foot and mouth disease is often diagnosed from the appearance of blisters. Typically, these initially appear on the mouth, and then in other areas including the soles of feet, fingers, palms, nappy area and sides of the tongue. Unlike chickenpox blisters, these blisters are not itchy. Other symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease include:

  • A sore throat;
  • Tiredness and irritability;
  • High temperature, and;
  • Poor appetite (eating and drinking normally can be painful because of the mouth blisters).

Baby with hand foot and mouth disease.Hand, foot and mouth disease causes blisters. 

Methods for diagnosis

Most of the time a doctor will diagnose hand, foot and mouth disease based on the external symptoms. Very rarely, a throat swab or faeces sample may be taken for laboratory testing.

Types of treatment

There is no specific treatment for hand, foot and mouth disease and it usually passes in a few days. However, paracetamol or ibuprofen may be used to relieve discomfort and fever.

Blisters should not be broken, as the fluid in the blisters is infectious.

Potential complications

In very rare cases, the virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease can cause viral meningitis, which may require hospitalisation for a few days. There have also been cases of the infection spreading to the brain resulting in brain inflammation (encephalitis).

Encephalitis

Inflammation of the brain, usually caused by a viral infection.

Prognosis

The disease usually resolves itself within 7-10 days.

Prevention

As the viruses that cause hand, foot and mouth disease are spread through contact with the blister fluid, nasal discharge or faecal matter of the infected person, practising good personal hygiene is the best way of preventing contamination. Teaching your children to cover their mouths during coughing and sneezing and frequent handwashing will minimise the risk of an infection. It is important that children stay at home from school, childcare and playgroup until all the fluid in the blisters has dried, so as to avoid infecting other children.