Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common infection that causes mouth ulcers and spots on the hands and feet.
It's most common in young children – particularly those under 10 – but can affect older children and adults as well.
Hand, foot and mouth disease can be unpleasant, but it will usually clear up by itself within 7 to 10 days. You can normally look after yourself or your child at home.
The infection is not related to foot and mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep and pigs.
This page covers:
What to do if you or your child has it
When to get medical advice
How it spreads
Symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease
The symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease usually develop between three and five days after being exposed to the infection.
The first symptoms may include:
After one or two days, red spots appear on the tongue and inside the mouth.
These quickly develop into larger yellow-grey mouth ulcers with red edges.
The ulcers can be painful and make eating, drinking and swallowing difficult. They should pass within a week.
Spotty rash and blisters
Soon after the mouth ulcers appear, you'll probably notice a rash made up of small, raised red spots on the skin.
These typically develop on the fingers, the backs or palms of the hand, the soles of the feet, and occasionally on the buttocks and groin.
The spots may then turn into small blisters with a grey centre.
The spots and blisters can sometimes be itchy or uncomfortable and typically last up to 10 days.
What to do if you or your child has hand, foot and mouth disease
If you have hand, foot and mouth disease, the best thing to do is to stay at home until you're feeling better. There's no cure for it, so you have to let it run its course.
To help ease your or your child's symptoms:
- drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration – water or milk are ideal; it may help to give a baby smaller but more frequent bottle or breast milk feeds
- eat soft foods such as mashed potatoes, yoghurt and soups if eating and swallowing is uncomfortable – avoid hot, acidic or spicy foods and drinks
- take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to ease a sore throat and fever – aspirin shouldn't be given to children under the age of 16; paracetamol is best if you're pregnant
- try gargling with warm, salty water to relieve discomfort from mouth ulcers – it's important not to swallow the mixture, so this isn't recommended for young children
- alternatively, use mouth gels, rinses or sprays for mouth ulcers – these are available from pharmacies, but aren't routinely recommended, and some aren't suitable for young children; ask your pharmacist for advice and make sure you read the instructions first
You should keep your child away from nursery or school until they're feeling better. Adults with the condition should stay away from work until they're feeling better.
See preventing hand, foot and mouth disease below for more information about stopping the infection spreading.
When to get medical advice
You don't usually need medical attention if you think you or your child has hand, foot and mouth disease. The infection will usually pass in 7 to 10 days, and there isn't much your doctor can do.
Antibiotics won't help as hand, foot and mouth disease is caused by a virus.
If you're unsure whether you or your child has hand, foot and mouth disease, you can call NHS 111 or your GP for advice.
You should also get medical advice if:
- your child is unable or unwilling to drink any fluids
- your child has signs of dehydration, such as unresponsiveness, passing small amounts of urine or no urine at all, or cold hands and feet
- your child develops fits (seizures), confusion, weakness or a loss of consciousness
- your child is under three months old and has a temperature of 38C (101F) or above, or is between three and six months old and has a temperature of 39C (102F) or above
- the skin becomes very painful, red, swollen and hot, or there's a discharge of pus
- the symptoms are getting worse or haven't improved after 7 to 10 days
Get advice from your GP if you're pregnant and you become infected within a few weeks of your due date. Infection in pregnancy is usually nothing to worry about, but there's a small chance it could make your baby ill if you're infected shortly before you give birth.
Read more about the risks of hand, foot and mouth disease in pregnancy.
How hand, foot and mouth disease spreads
Someone with hand, foot and mouth disease is most infectious from just before their symptoms start until they're feeling better.
The infection can be spread by close person to person contact and contact with contaminated surfaces. The virus is found in:
- the droplets in the coughs and sneezes of an infected person – you can become infected if you get these on your hands and then touch your mouth, or if you breathe in the droplets
- an infected person's poo – if an infected person doesn't wash their hands properly after going to the toilet, they can contaminate food or surfaces
- an infected person's saliva or fluid from their blisters – you can become infected if this gets in your mouth
The infection is caused by a number of different viruses, so it's possible to get it more than once. Most people develop immunity to these viruses as they get older.
Preventing hand, foot and mouth disease
It's not always possible to avoid getting hand, foot and mouth disease, but following the advice below can help stop the infection spreading.
- Stay off work, school or nursery until you or your child are feeling better – there's usually no need to wait until the last blister has healed, provided you're otherwise well.
- Use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and put used tissues in a bin as soon as possible.
- Wash your hands with soap and water often – particularly after going to the toilet, coughing, sneezing or handling nappies, and before preparing food.
- Avoid sharing cups, utensils, towels and clothes with people who are infected.
- Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated – it's best to use a bleach-based household cleaner.
- Wash any bedding or clothing that could have become contaminated separately on a hot wash.
Read more about how to prevent germs spreading.
Page last reviewed: 10/02/2016
Next review due: 10/02/2018