There's no cure for the viral infection, which can cause a rash and painful blisters. 

Amanda MacMillan
August 13, 2018

A viral infection known as hand, foot, and mouth disease is in the news this month, as doctors in several states have reported an increase in cases. And while children are more likely to catch and pass along this illness, adults can and do get sick from it as well. In fact, two Major League Baseball players—Noah Syndergaard of the Mets and J.A. Happ of the Yankees—recently missed games because they’d contracted the virus.

While the news about hand, foot, and mouth disease may seem concerning, it’s not necessarily anything to worry about, says Jessica Ericson, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Penn State Children’s Hospital. Outbreaks among young kids are common, and they aren’t unheard of among school-aged children, college students, and adults, either.

Still, it’s smart to know how to spot this painful illness, and how to protect yourself from it and other contagious viruses. Here’s what doctors want everyone to know.

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What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is an infection caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses. Usually, a subgroup called coxsackieviruses are to blame, although other types of enteroviruses have been linked to the illness, as well.

Hand, foot, and mouth disease got its name from its most prominent symptoms: sores in the mouth and a rash that commonly appears on the hands and feet. While the illness can sound—and look—scary, it’s not usually dangerous, says Nadia Qureshi, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Medical Center. It can be quite uncomfortable, though, and usually lasts five to seven days.

Hand, foot, and mouth disease symptoms

“Because it can be caused by many different virus strains, hand, foot, and mouth disease look different from one person to the next,” says Dr. Ericson. Often, people develop sores or blisters on their hands, feet, tongues, gums, and the insides of their cheeks, “but you could have them in just one place, or in other places,” she says. “We often see sores on the buttocks in the diaper area, or with a generalized rash across the body.”

Those sores aren’t usually itchy, but they can be painful. “The sores in the mouth can be so bad that children, especially small babies, may not be willing to drink enough and can get dehydrated,” says Dr. Ericson.

In the past several years, doctors have observed a new strain of the coxsackievirus that causes “a more severe and more atypical presentation of symptoms,” says Dr. Qureshi. The new strain, which is a natural evolution of the virus, tends to cause a more widespread rash and more painful blisters. It also tends to affect older children and adults, as well as toddlers and babies.

People with hand, foot, and mouth disease can also feel sick in other ways: They often develop a fever, sore throat, and loss of appetite, for example. In very rare cases, says Dr. Qureshi, the coxsackievirus has been linked to serious brain or heart complications.

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Hand, foot, and mouth disease treatment

Like other illnesses caused by viruses, there’s no cure for hand, foot, and mouth disease. Thankfully, it usually clears up on its own after about a week.

“There’s no treatment other than symptomatic measures to make the person feel better,” says Dr. Ericson. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce fever and discomfort, she says, and over-the-counter sprays and mouthwashes can be used to numb pain from sores in the mouth.

Staying hydrated is also important for feeling better as quickly as possible. In rare cases when people are unable to drink fluids, they may need to receive hydration through an IV.

Hand, foot, and mouth disease home remedies

Doctors often recommend sucking on ice pops or ice chips to reduce the pain from sores in the mouth, says Dr. Ericson. People may also find that drinking cold milk or water, eating soft foods, and avoiding anything spicy or acidic can help keep discomfort to a minimum.

Gargling with or swishing salt water around the mouth may also provide some relief, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. For a homemade salt water solution, dissolve half a teaspoon of salt into a glass of warm water and stir.

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Hand, foot, and mouth disease prevention

Your best defense against hand, foot, and mouth disease is frequent hand-washing, says Dr. Ericson. “It’s transmitted through the secretions of an infected person—in the stool or in nasal secretions if they have a runny nose—so you can get it through contact with that person or sharing things that person has touched,” she says.

That’s why the disease tends to spread more frequently among children, “who are more likely to be sharing germs and whose bathroom hygiene isn’t so well developed,” she adds. But it can also spread among adults, especially those in close quarters, like in dorms or locker rooms.

“Good hand-washing with soap and water—after wiping your nose, after using the restroom, and after changing a baby’s diaper—is going to be the most effective way to prevent spreading from person to person,” says Dr. Ericson.

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If you or a loved one does end up with hand, foot, and mouth disease, try to keep the sick person home from work or school, and disinfect common areas like countertops and bathrooms to keep others in your home from getting sick. And if it’s not obvious where you or your loved one caught the virus, don’t try to point fingers.

“A person can be contagious without having any symptoms, so it can be hard to know where you got it from,” says Dr. Ericson. “You really could have picked it up anywhere.”