Hand, foot and mouth disease & how it affects youngsters

Published on Wednesday, 19 February 2020
Last updated on Monday, 17 February 2020

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Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) is a viral infection that commonly affects preschoolers and other children under the age of 10. 

HFMD can spread easily in the early childhood education (ECE) service environment, especially at this time of the year, so let’s see how you can recognise its symptoms, care for your child if they get it, and help 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. 

The Ministry of Health says that preschoolers often get sicker than other ages, and the virus usually starts with a mild fever, three to five days after your child has come in contact with the virus. 

Your child will then develop other symptoms, including:

  • Painful red blisters on the palms of their hands, soles of their feet and mouth (including their tongue)
  • Reduced appetite
  • Soreness in their mouth and throat 
  • Fatigue and weakness

In most cases, the infection will be mild and you can expect it to last three to seven days. Your child will be contagious for around 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. If your child is feeling well and their blisters can be covered, then HealthEd says you don’t need to exclude them any more.
  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. 
  • Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you need advice or have a particular concern. The Ministry of Health says that HFMD ‘can be a mild or a very serious illness,’ so keep an eye on your child and seek medical assistance if you’re worried. 

Is it just children that get HFMD?

Although HFMD is most common amongst children, it is possible for teens and adults to get this infection. 

The Ministry of Health says that HFMD is rare in healthy adults, and if you’re expecting a baby, the risk of infection during pregnancy is very low. That said, it is possible to pass the virus to your unborn baby shortly before you give birth, and if you come into contact with HFMD while pregnant, mention this to your healthcare professional. 

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 precautions to stop the spread of this infection amongst little people. 

Good hand hygiene helps prevent the spread of many illnesses, and although it can be challenging to work around a sick child, exclusion policies at ECE services also go a long way to preventing the spread of lurgies – whether it’s HFMD ‘season’ in early autumn or cold season in the depths of winter. 


NZ Ministry of Health
Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne
NSW Department of Health

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