hand foot and mouth disease

Hand Foot and Mouth Disease

Everything You Need To Know + A Secret Recipe To Cure The Pain

by Steve Silvestro, MD  @zendocsteve

You can also listen to this article as a podcast in your favorite podcast app or in the player below.

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As a pediatrician, I see first-hand how miserable an experience Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease can be for families.

This article will give you everything you need to know to recognize and treat this infection should your child get it—including the Pediatrician’s Secret Recipe for a remedy that we recommend to our patients & you can make at home.

WHAT IS HAND-FOOT-AND-MOUTH-DISEASE?

Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease  is a viral infection that is usually caused by a virus caused coxsackievirus. It’s most common in young children, though adults can get it, as well.

In the United States, Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is usually a spring & summertime virus, though it can be caught at any time of year.

And while the symptoms are often painful and frustrating, it’s usually a fairly benign illness that typically lasts about 3 to 5 days. For my Pacific readers in Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, and Australia, however, there is one particular strain caused by a virus called Enterovirus-71 (or EV-71) that can cause some neurologic problems. For those of us in the United States, those associations have luckily been pretty rare in the last 50 years.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

Typically, the worst of Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease lasts about 3-5 days.

The most common signs and symptoms are fever, rash, and sores in the mouth. It’s important to note that a child doesn’t need to have all three symptoms to be diagnosed with Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease, although they often will.

Sores in the Mouth

The most common symptom that I see is the presence of sores in the mouth. These are small blisters or ulcers that can be seen on the gums, the inside of the lips, or near the back of the throat. These things hurt quite a bit & they’re the worst part of Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease.

In young kids, you might see that they drool more than usual because it hurts to swallow even their saliva. They might be hungry and may start to eat or drink, but as soon as the food or milk touches those sores, kids will often pop off the breast or bottle or even spit out food because of the pain.

Rash

With regard to the rash, it’s interesting because the rash is what contributes the “hand foot” part of the infection’s name, but not all children will get the rash.

The classic rash of Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease consists of small, red blisters on palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. (In fact, there are only a small handful of infections that will give a rash on the palms and the soles—most others might be on the back of the hands or the top of the feet, but not the palms and soles—and Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is one of those few infections that will do it).

Some of us nerdy doctors joke that Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease should really be called “hand foot mouth and butt” because the rash can track from the feet, all the way up the legs to the buttocks. Sometimes, we’ll also see the same blistery rash around the mouth. We don’t usually see it on the torso or arms, but there was a newly recognized strain that came out a few years ago that is a bit more aggressive, and I’ve seen some kids with that who have blisters on the belly and even shoulders.

The rash can take days to weeks to resolve.

Fever

As for the fever, we typically see it in the 101-102 range, although it’s not uncommon for Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease to cause fevers as high as 105. (And for more on what to do about fevers, I encourage you to read this article in which I cover when you do & don’t have to worry about fevers). The fever typically sticks around for 1 to 3 days. If your child hits a 5th day of fever, then you’ll want to get in touch with your pediatrician, even if you’ve already done so earlier in the week.

Less Common Symptoms

One strange thing that you can see with Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is changes to the fingernails one or two months later. You might see that the nails are bumpy and have ridges, or perhaps a fingernail or two fall off entirely. Nails are kind of like the rings in a tree—just like how you can cut a tree and see when it might have been sick in years past by looking at changes to the rings inside, changes in the fingernails can sometimes let you know that a hefty infection happened a few months back—and Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is one such hefty infection.

TREATMENT—THE PEDIATRICIAN’S SECRET RECIPE

Okay, so we have all these nasty symptoms, let’s talk about what we can do about them.

Unfortunately, because Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is caused by a virus, we don’t currently have any medicine that can knock out the infection like an antibiotic would for a bacteria. Bummer, right?

What you can do, however, is help your child feel more comfortable.

If the fever has your child feeling uncomfortable, then you can treat the fever and bring it down. (Again, see this article for more on fevers & download my Children’s Medication Dosing Guide.)

The worst part of Hand Foot & Mouth is usually the pain from sores in the mouth. If your child is having a hard time eating or drinking because his or her mouth hurts, then you can make what pediatricians call “Magic Mouthwash.” You can make this concoction at home and apply it before each meal (or before nursing or giving a bottle).

Ingredients:

Children’s Benadryl

Maalox (or “Equate”)

Directions

Mix equal parts of Children’s Benadryl and Maalox. Dip a cotton swab, paper towel, or washcloth into the mixture, then dab any sores that you see in your child’s mouth or on the gums or tongue. If your child knows how to swish and spit, then you can have them do that instead. Try not to let your child swallow much of the mixture. Assuming that your child does not swallow much, if any, of the Magic Mouthwash, it can be applied prior to each time your child eats.

The reason we care so much about fixing the mouth pain is that the most common negative outcome is dehydration—especially for young babies and toddlers—because they refuse to eat & drink due to the pain.

You might find that cool liquids will feel better for your child. You can even try popsicles if they won’t drink. Hot or very warm liquids and foods, as well as acidic juices or foods, will hurt—so stay away from those.

When trying to soothe the sores in the mouth, DO NOT use oral numbing gels! If a child swallows too much of these, then there’s a risk of causing some pretty nasty things, one of which is a blood disorder called methemoglobinemia. So instead of numbing gels, make Magic Mouthwash to help your child feel better.

WHEN TO CALL YOUR DOCTOR

There are a few times that Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease should make you call your pediatrician:

  • Your child won’t eat or drink and you are worried about dehydration
  • Your child’s fever has lasted 5 days or more
  • You can’t make your child’s fever budge (be sure you’re using the correct dose with the chart in the middle of the page here first)
  • You aren’t sure whether your child’s infection is Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease

HOW TO PREVENT HAND-FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE

Drool & stool—that’s how Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is passed on.

Yuck, right?

The sores in the mouth contain the virus, meaning that it gets picked up in your child’s drool as the saliva passes over the sores. The virus is also swallowed, and then passed out in your child’s poop.

That’s why the most important way to prevent Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease from spreading—and to prevent yourself from catching it—is good handwashing. If your child has it, make her wash her hands frequently, especially if she touches her face often. If your baby or toddler has it, be sure to wash well after changing diapers.

HOW LONG IS A CHILD CONTAGIOUS?

Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease is considered contagious until at least 24 hours after fever has gone away.

If there is no fever, then I go by how much a child is drooling. If there is a lot more drool than usual, then that means that there are still some open sores in the mouth, so the virus can still be spread by the drool. If that’s the case, then it’s best to keep your child home until the drooling slows down or stops.

For more on when sick kids can go back to school without being contagious, see my article “When Can a Sick Child Return to School.”


With these tips—and with the Pediatrician’s Secret Recipe to Cure Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease Pain—you and your child should be feeling much better within just a few days.

For more tips on keeping your family healthy, follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube & subscribe to The Child Repair Guide Podcast on your favorite podcast app.

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12 replies
    • Steve Silvestro
      Steve Silvestro says:

      Hi, Bonnie! I would say that the answer depends on what you mean by “reinfected.” Let’s say that a child has HFM and gives it to her brother before she gets better. If her brother is still sick with it when she’s feeling better, she shouldn’t be able to get reinfected from him–she’s already gotten over that particular strain and her body knows how to fight it.

      If you mean can you get HFM at some point in your life after having it once before, then the answer is ‘yes.’ There are different strains that circulate, and it is possible to get HFM again in your life if you are either exposed to a strain that varies enough from the one you had in the past, or if your immunity has decreased over time.

      I hope this helps!

  1. Litsa
    Litsa says:

    Hi Dr. Steve! Do you have any home remedies for HFM that we can do a bath in? I have used coconut oil in bath for my oldest, and the bumps/sores on his body were gone in less than a day. My little one has sensitive skin so, not sure if it will be a good remedy bath for him as well.

    • Steve Silvestro
      Steve Silvestro says:

      Hi, Litsa! I don’t have any particular HFM remedies that involve a bath. That’s great to hear that the sores resolved quickly with coconut oil. I’ll have to look into that some more. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jill
    Jill says:

    Hello, I have a question our pediatrician recommended that the babies drink the maalox/Benadryl mix. In your post it says try not to let them swallow. Why is that? Thank you so much! I am now worried I’ve beem doing the wrong thing!

    • Steve Silvestro
      Steve Silvestro says:

      Hi Jill,

      This is a great question, in part because it’s something that comes up a lot, and also because it’s often hard to prevent a young child from swallowing the Magic Mouthwash.

      Ultimately, it’s okay if the child swallows the mixture–but ONLY if it’s equal to or less than the maximum dose of Benadryl for the child’s weight (see my dosing guide, downloadable via the blue bar at the top of the page) AND if you’re only giving the mixture no more often than four times a day, at least four hours apart.

      Basically, the reason to try to dab the mixture onto the sores instead of letting the child swallow it is so that the child doesn’t get more Benadryl than is allowed for his or her weight. If you’re just dabbing a bit on and there is a minuscule amount that might be swallowed, then it’s not a problem.

      I hope this helps!

  3. Keana
    Keana says:

    My 1 1/2 year old son has just been diagnosed with hand foot mouth disease . I took him into the Er 7/15/18 and it is now 7/16/18 and it seems to be that the bumps have spread a lot more and gotten worse . is this normal? Is there anything that I could possibly do ?

    • Steve Silvestro
      Steve Silvestro says:

      Hi Keana,

      Sorry to hear that your little guy has HFM! Luckily, you’re already a few days in and should be over the hump soon. The rash can continue to spread over the first few days. After that, they rash might begin to look darker, and then will finally fade. It’s common to see that in some areas–especially on the feet–something like a “shadow” of the rash will remain for a few weeks.

      All in all, the progression of the rash that you’re seeing sounds fairly typical. That said, since I’m not able to see your son, if you are concerned about him it may be best to contact your pediatrician.

      I hope he feels better soon!
      Dr. Steve

    • Steve Silvestro
      Steve Silvestro says:

      Yes, it’s okay for her to take the magic mouthwash. Keep in mind that one ingredient is Benadryl, so you won’t want to use more than what would be the appropriate dose of Benadryl for her weight (see my downloadable dosing guide via the blue bar at the top of the page). I hope she feels better soon!

    • Steve Silvestro
      Steve Silvestro says:

      Hi Bev,

      I’m sorry to hear that your little one is sick! Assuming that Noah isn’t allergic to either of the ingredients, you can use the recipe above for the “magic mouthwash.” Just be sure to try and dab it on the sores in the mouth so that Noah doesn’t swallow too much of the medicine.

      Outside of that, again assuming no allergies to ibuprofen or acetaminophen and no health issues that would prevent you from using them, those are the typical ways to help with the pain.

      At 9 months, Noah needs to give you at least 5-6 good wet diapers in a 24-hour period. If that isn’t happening, then that’s your clearest sign of dehydration.

      Of course, I need to say that I can’t diagnose or treat him online, so be sure to check in with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.

      I hope Noah gets better soon!

      Dr. Steve

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Hand Foot Mouth Remedies - This secret recipe is what pediatricians recommend to their patients. Make this home remedy to help your child feel better fast! #handfootmouth #pediatrician #homeremedy #magicmouthwash #parentingtips #parentingexpert