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What Is Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease, & Why Is It on the Rise?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a condition that often strikes in childhood and can be completely miserable for little ones and the rest of their family. What exactly is HFM, and why does it seem to be everywhere these days?

What is HFM, anyway?

Kids can come down with a dizzying array of rash-based maladies, and while you may not be familiar with this one, hand, foot and mouth disease is definitely another illness to watch out for. 

“Hand, foot and mouth disease is a viral illness which can cause fever and blisters or spots in the mouth, on the hands and on the feet of affected individuals,” Dr. Danelle Fisher, chief of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells SheKnows. “HFM occurs more commonly in infants, toddlers and school-aged children.”

The illness usually starts out innocently enough, dermatologist Dr. Erum Ilyas tells SheKnows. Typically, it begins with a few days of a low-grade fever, he notes. They may be a little irritable and might have a sore throat. As a parent, you know there are plenty of viruses that seem similar, and many just fade away after a few days. 

Not so with HFM, Ilyas says. “A rash breaks out as small painful vesicles that break open quickly in the mouth and make it uncomfortable to eat, and often, kids will start drooling,” he explains. “The hands and feet (especially on the sides of the fingers) will break out in small vesicles with a pink halo around them. About half the cases will also have lesions on the buttocks.” Ow!

More: How to Keep Your Kids From Getting Sick Once School Starts

An unwelcome virus

Like many maladies, hand, foot and mouth disease is caused by a virus. According to the CDC, in HFM’s case, it’s typically a virus called Coxsackievirus A16, but that’s not the only culprit. It’s spread in loads of different ways, such as hugging someone with the infection and breathing in any virus particles that may be emanating from their nose or coming into contact with objects and surfaces that may be hosting the virus, such as on a doorknob. Sharing drinks can also spread the illness, as can not properly washing your hands after using the restroom (it can spread via fecal germs, unfortunately). 

More: Turns Out We’re All Terrible at Washing Our Hands

As a virus, there really isn’t any medicine available that will shorten the duration of the illness (or cure it outright), says Ilyas, but he does note that over-the-counter pain relief might come in handy (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen) because, let’s face it, HFM is painful. You can, however, try a few strategies that may help your kids eat or drink. “It helps to have kids suck on cold treats like Popsicles,” he explains. “Eating softer foods and less acidic foods will also be less likely to irritate the lesions while trying to eat.”

Is HFM more prevalent these days?

As it turns out, while summertime is full of fun times, warmer weather is often associated with more outbreaks, Ilyas explains. “Across the world, there has been a rising incidence of hand, foot and mouth — especially in Asia,” he notes. “It is unclear why — however, some theories suggest climate change may be partially to blame.”

HFM-prevention strategies

Hand, foot and mouth disease is pretty contagious, unfortunately. It’s usually the most contagious during the first week of illness according to the CDC. However, that doesn’t mean there is no danger after that first seven days is over, says Ilyas. “The virus can still be shed in their saliva and feces for weeks after,” he warns. “Proper hygiene with handwashing, covering the mouth [when] coughing, proper disposal of tissues after wiping a runny nose [and] avoiding sharing drinks [are] important.”

Dehydration is the main complication parents should watch out for, Fisher notes. She explains the sores in the mouth can cause kids to turn their noses up at offered drinks, so try to push fluids and watch out for signs of dehydration.

Also, while this illness is far more common in small children, that doesn’t mean older kids — and adults — aren’t ever going to experience HFM. “I thought I should point out that this is not strictly a kids disease,” Bruce Mirken of The Greenlining Institute tells SheKnows. “I know, because I got it at the age of 55 or 56 at a professional conference in Los Angeles.” 

So a head’s up to parents to keep the illness at bay by continuing the prevention strategies above after your child seems to be well so you can hopefully avoid coming down with it as a grown-up. As Mirken says, “It’s really, really, really miserable.”

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