Introduction 

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a viral infection that can affect young children.

It doesn't usually pose a serious threat to a child's health, but it can be be an unpleasant condition, particularly if it affects younger children.

Typical symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease include:

  • cold-like symptoms, such as loss of appetite, cough and a moderately high temperature of around 38-39°C (100.4-102.2°F)
  • a non-itchy red rash, made up of spots or small fluid-filled sacs (vesicles), which usually develops on the hands and feet, but may also occur on the knees, elbows, groin and buttocks; sometimes the rash can develop into painful blisters
  • painful mouth ulcers

Read more about the symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease.

When to see your GP

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a self-limiting condition, which means it will get better on its own without treatment. The symptoms will usually pass within seven days.

However, speak to your GP or call NHS 111 if you're unsure whether your child has hand, foot and mouth disease.

You should also contact your GP if your child isn’t drinking any fluid or their symptoms last longer than seven days.

Treating hand, foot and mouth disease

There is currently no cure for hand, foot and mouth disease, so treatment involves making your child feel as comfortable as possible while waiting for the infection to take its course.

Possible treatment options include:

  • using paracetamolibuprofen and mouth gels to relieve the pain of mouth ulcers
  • drinking plenty of fluids to help relieve a high temperature

Read more about treating hand, foot and mouth disease.

What causes it?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses. The most common types of viruses that can cause the condition are:

  • coxsackievirus A16, A6 or A10
  • enterovirus 71

Enterovirus 71 carries a higher risk of causing serious complications (see below).

Read more about the causes of hand, foot and mouth disease.

How the infection spreads

A person with hand, foot and mouth disease is highly contagious until about a week after the symptoms begin. The infection can be spread if:

  • contaminated droplets are transferred from an infected person for example, if an infected person coughs or sneezes, the droplets can be inhaled by another person or can contaminate surfaces, leading to the spread of infection
  • fecal matter (stool) is transferred from an infected person  for example, if an infected person doesn't wash their hands properly after going to the toilet and then contaminates food or surfaces (the viruses can live for up to four weeks in a person’s stools)
  • you come into contact with the fluids of an infected person’s blisters or saliva

Because of the way the infection is spread, outbreaks of hand, foot and mouth disease can occur in places where groups of children need to have their nappies changed or use a potty, such as nurseries or childcare centres.

You should keep your child away from school or nursery while they are unwell. However, there's no need to wait until the last blister has gone before your child can return to school or nursery, providing they are otherwise well.

However, some schools and nurseries may reserve the right to refuse to take your child until the condition has cleared up completely.

It is rare, but possible, to get hand, foot and mouth disease more than once, although not during the same outbreak. As they get older, most children will develop immunity to the viruses that cause the condition.

Complications

It’s important to make sure that anyone with hand, foot and mouth disease keeps drinking fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated.

Dehydration can often occur because the mouth ulcers can make drinking fluids painful.

Life-threatening complications such as brain infections (encephalitis) have been reported during epidemics of hand, foot and mouth disease caused by the enterovirus 71. However, these complications are very rare and they have been limited to the Asia-Pacific region.

Read more about the complications of hand, foot and mouth disease.

Adults with hand, foot and mouth disease

Although hand, foot and mouth disease mainly affects children aged 10 or younger, adults can be affected.

Adults with the condition are also contagious and should stay away from the workplace until it has completely cleared up.

Hand, foot and mouth disease gets better on its own without treatment and complications are rare in adults. However, the symptoms can cause severe discomfort.

Is it the same as foot and mouth disease?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is not the same as foot and mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep and pigs. The two infections are unrelated, and you cannot catch hand, foot and mouth disease from animals.

Page last reviewed: 10/03/2014

Next review due: 10/03/2016