When people hear about hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD), they often associate it with infants and toddlers. And when there is an outbreak in a daycare or school, parents are often advised to be diligently on the lookout for symptoms. This contagious, viral illness isn’t just for the very young, however, and occasionally adult outbreaks surface in places with high densities of people, like college dorms.
Florida State University (FSU) is a recent example of this. In September 2016, the college reported a growing number of cases of hand, foot, and mouth disease and began advising students on proper sanitation methods.
“We are aware of more than a dozen cases so far,” Lesley Sacher, director of the FSU Health and Wellness Center, said in a statement.
“This illness usually lasts for a few days, and there is no medicine to treat it.
“Blisters may form on hands, feet or in the mouth with mild fever or sore throat causing the patient to feel uncomfortable for about five days.”
Yes, HFMD sounds scary, but before you buy stock in hand sanitizer, or put your children under lock and key, it’s important to understand where this condition comes from and what you can do to prevent it.
What is hand, foot, and mouth disease?
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a contagious, viral infection caused by a group of viruses called enteroviruses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states there are a number of viruses in this group — polioviruses, coxsackieviruses, echoviruses and other enteroviruses. But HFMD is typically the result of coxsackievirus A16.
The illness is spread by contact with another infected individual, often by way of throat and nose discharge, saliva, blister fluid, or fecal material.
Haven’t been around anyone who seems sick? Hand, foot, and mouth disease may not cause symptoms in every infected person. Someone can have the virus and unknowingly spread it to others.
In rare cases, HFMD is caused by enterovirus 71 (EV71) which has been associated with serious, potentially fatal complications, and has symptoms such as meningitis (brain and spinal cord membrane inflammation), encephalitis (brain inflammation), and polio-like paralysis.
Symptoms of hand, foot, and mouth disease
If you thought you were in the clear when it comes to HFMD, think again. While the condition typically affects children under the age of 10 due to their still-developing immune systems, adults with low prior exposure can also be at risk.
Anyone, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, can contract hand, foot, and mouth disease, and should contact a medical professional immediately if any of the following symptoms are noticed:
- Poor appetite
- Sore throat
- General feeling of sickness (malaise)
- Painful sores in the mouth
- The appearance of a rash with red spots or blisters
Hand, foot, and mouth disease may not manifest with all the classic symptoms, but generally, fever is the first development, followed by the appearance of non-itchy sores and rashes within a few days.
While HFMD gets its name from the areas of the body commonly affected (palms of the hands, soles of the feet, inside of the mouth), rashes can also appear on the knees, elbows, buttocks, or genital area.
Most cases of HFMD are self-limiting, meaning they will go away on their own after 3-10 days. Because there is no medication specifically designed to treat hand, foot, and mouth disease, most people are advised to drink plenty of water, and treat symptoms as they develop.
This doesn’t mean you have to suffer through the worst of your illness; talk to your doctor about the symptoms you’re having. Mouth blisters, fever, and rashes can all be improved with oral and topical medications.
Most importantly: remember to drink. Because HFMD can make swallowing difficult, dehydration becomes a major concern.
How can I prevent hand, foot, and mouth disease?
There’s no magic weapon against HFMD, but there are plenty of steps you can take to prevent the illness, even if you are in a high-exposure situation.
To prevent hand, foot, and mouth disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend:
- Frequent disinfecting of items such as toys, phones, door handles, etc. with soap and water, followed by a bleach solution.
- Avoid sharing food or beverages.
- Avoid close contact with infected individuals (no hugging, kissing, sharing of utensils).
- Cover the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.
- Dispose of tissues and diapers immediately and in sealed containers.
- Do laundry regularly, using hot water.
And most importantly, wash your hands frequently!
If, after all the prevention methods mentioned above, you still get hand, foot, and mouth disease, stay at home.
HFMD is highly contagious, and can be easily passed to your friends, family, or co-workers by even brief, casual contact. Stay in, make yourself comfortable, keep plenty of beverages on hand, and call your doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.
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