If you’ve got a kid in daycare, you’re probably hearing a lot about hand, foot and mouth disease. The highly contagious summertime virus is making the rounds, cropping up where little ones congregate and share their germs more readily than their toys.
(Not to be confused with foot-and-mouth or hoof-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep, and pigs. Different viruses, different species, different diseases.)
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t received any reports of HF&M outbreaks at daycares, but the agency defines an “outbreak” as many more cases of an illness than expected popping up in a given area or among a group of people over a certain period if time. HF&M is expected during the summer months, so daycares can still see plenty of cases without meeting that reporting threshold.
Colette Sabbagh, a pediatrician with EMMC Pediatric Medicine in Bangor, says she’s seeing children with the disease, which is most commonly caused by the coxsackie virus.
“This is not unusual for this time of year,” she said.
HF&M typically appears around the end of May, wrapping up in July or August, she said.
The illness primarily affects infants and children under five, but adults can catch it, too. Symptoms often start with a fever, sore throat, and poor appetite, followed by blister-like sores in the mouth. A skin rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet may also appear, though Sabbagh says most of her patients present with the mouth sores but no rash.
HF&M only rarely leads to complications.
“It’s pretty much a routine childhood illness,” Sabbagh said.
Younger children tend to stay sick with HF&M longer and may experience high fevers, up to 104 or 105 degrees, Sabbagh said. But she urged parents not to worry about the fever, which carries no long-term health consequences. Contrary to popular perception, “There is no temperature that’s an emergency,” she explained. Doctors grow concerned about fevers when they can’t determine the cause, among other reasons, but not simply because a fever hits a certain degree on the thermometer.
In other words, don’t panic about a high fever in a child diagnosed with HF&M.
Do keep an eye on your child’s fluid intake, however. The mouth sores can make swallowing painful, which puts kids at risk of dehydration.
What can you do to spare your kid from HF&M at daycare? Not much, other than keeping them home. Daycare policies that prevent children with the disease from attending for a few days may limit the spread, as those infected are most contagious during the first week of symptoms. But people can remain contagious for days and even weeks after symptoms disappear. Some show no symptoms at all, unknowingly spreading the illness to others.
The viruses that cause HF&M lurk in an infected person’s nose and throat secretions, such as saliva; the fluid in the blisters; and stool. The germs spread through close personal contact, coughing and sneezing, contact with stool, and contaminated objects and surfaces. So it’s no mystery why the illness is showing up in daycares.
If your kid has HF&M, take steps to prevent it from spreading to the rest of the family by regularly washing hands (especially after changing diapers), cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and items, avoiding sharing utensils or cups, and laying off the kissing and hugging for a while.
There’s no vaccine or treatment for the disease, other than over-the-counter medications to relieve the fever and mouth pain.
Nearly all patients recover from HF&M in seven to 10 days without medical treatment. As always, call your health care provider if you’re concerned.
“Though it’s hard to have a sick child, it’s not something to fear,” Sabbagh said.