Hand, foot and mouth disease & how it affects youngsters

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & Nutrition
  Published on Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Hand, foot and mouth disease & how it affects youngsters

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & Nutrition
  Published on Wednesday, 19 February 2020
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Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) might sound a bit scary, but this viral infection is actually common amongst under fives and can be prevalent in the early learning environment. 

There have been significant outbreaks of HFMD at early childhood services and kindergartens over the last few years because it’s highly contagious, so let’s see how you can recognise the virus, care for your child if they get it and stop HFMD from spreading to others. 

What are the symptoms of HFMD?

HFMD causes a rash or blisters to appear on your child’s skin, and because it’s called ‘hand, foot and mouth disease’ you can expect the rash or blisters to appear on those body parts. 

That said, there are two types of viruses that cause HFMD, and your child’s rash/blisters will present differently, depending on which virus they have.

According to the Royal Children’s Hospital:

  • Some children get small, white, oval-shaped blisters on their palms, soles of the feet and in their mouth (on their cheeks, gums and sides of the tongue).
  • While other children will get a red skin rash with brown scale on it (and sometimes blisters) on their hands, feet, outside arms, legs, upper buttocks and around the mouth (but probably not inside it).

As well as having a rash or blisters, your child may also:

  • Feel tired and grumpy
  • Have a fever
  • Have a sore mouth and throat (caused by mouth blisters) 
  • Lose their appetite (if eating and drinking is painful for them)  

Symptoms usually emerge three to seven days after your child is infected, and last seven to 10 days. 

How can parents prevent the spread of HFMD?

Young children play in close proximity, and HFMD can be easily spread as youngsters touch one another, share toys, swap drink bottles and forget the importance of good hygiene. 

A child can get HFMD when they come into contact with virus-laden blister fluid, mouth secretions or droplets that are sneezed or coughed up by an infected person. The virus can also linger in a child’s poo for up to several weeks after they’ve recovered from their bout of HFMD, meaning that the virus can spread from toilet or nappy change area, to hands, to other people. 

Although there is no vaccine for this virus, here are five ways to guard against it and stop the spread of HFMD:

  1. Keep your child home from care until all the fluid in their blisters has dried up, and any fever/rash has gone. You should also tell your child’s early learning service about the infection. 
  2. Always wash your hands well after you’ve touched your child’s blisters, blown their nose, changed their nappy, wiped their bottom or otherwise touched their bodily fluids. It’s recommended that you wash your hands with soap and running water for at least 10 seconds. 
  3. Thoroughly wash any soiled clothing, surfaces or toys that might have been contaminated by HFMD.
  4. Make sure your child doesn’t share items, like toys, cutlery, cups, toothbrushes, towels, washers and clothing (especially socks and shoes) with others.
  5. Teach your child about cough and sneeze etiquette. This means covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue (or coughing into their elbow if need be), putting the tissue straight in the bin after use, then washing their hands with soap and water. 

What is the best way to care for your child when they have HFMD?

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses like HFMD, but there are ways to reduce your child’s discomfort as you wait for the infection to heal itself. 

The Royal Children’s Hospital recommends that you:

  • Keep your child hydrated by giving them frequent sips of water or an oral rehydration solution
  • Give them pain relief if they’re hurting or uncomfortable. The experts recommend paracetamol or ibuprofen for children, but not aspirin.
  • Leave their blisters to dry out naturally, rather than squeezing or piercing them. 
  • Watch your child’s symptoms. A high fever and skin rash can point to a meningococcal infection, so if your child’s rash looks like small, bright red spots or unexplained bruises or purple spots, and it doesn’t turn skin-coloured when you press on it, you should seek urgent medical advice. 

In rare and severe cases, HFMD can lead to further complications, such as meningitis, but in most cases, health experts describe HFMD as a mild illness that gets better on its own.   

What research is being conducted around HFMD?

Currently, there is no effective drug treatment for HFMD, however, a group of researchers at Queensland’s Griffith University have discovered some ‘potent small molecule inhibitors’ that block the early stages of HFMD infection. 

Hopefully their work will lead to an effective treatment for HFMD, but in the meantime, prevention is better than a cure. 

Is it just children that get HFMD?

Although HFMD is most common amongst under-fives and mainly affects under 10s, teens and adults can get this infection as well. 

The NSW Department of Health says that many adults, including pregnant women, are often exposed to the virus, but don’t get symptoms. And while there’s no clear evidence of risk to unborn babies from HFMD, infected mothers can pass the virus to their newborn.

It’s also worth noting that a person can contract the virus more than once, but their symptoms will be less severe the second time around. 

Is hand, foot and mouth disease the same as foot and mouth disease?

Although the names sound similar, you can rest assured that these are two completely different illnesses. Foot and mouth disease affects animals, so focus on spotting the signs of HFMD and taking your little human out of care if they contract the virus. Although it can be hard to work around a sick child, exclusion policies really are for the good of everyone. 


Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne
NSW Department of Health

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 17 February 2020

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