Your kids are well entrenched in the school year by now, and while their backpacks may be filled with school papers and artwork, there’s something else they could be bringing home this fall: The ultra-contagious hand, foot and mouth disease, which is caused by the Coxsackie virus.
New York pediatrician Deena Blanchard says parents don’t need to be alarmed. "Basically it's a virus with a name. It's not that different from me saying your kid has the common cold,'" she says, adding, "Sometimes when you put a name on something medical, people freak out."
Here's a cheat sheet on what it is and the best ways to treat it.
1. What's the difference between the Coxsackie virus and hand, foot and mouth disease?
The Coxsackie virus can be mild, or it can cause a wide range of symptoms such as fever, sore throat, irritability, headache, abdominal discomfort or nausea.
Hand, foot and mouth disease — not to be confused with hoof-and-mouth disease, which only animals can catch — is a specific condition caused by the Coxsackie virus, named for the town of Coxsackie, New York, where it was first isolated in the late 1940s.
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2. What are the symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease?
With the hand, foot and mouth variation, kids will have fever, irritability, sores in their mouths and throats, and pimple-like blisters. The bumps can appear on hands and feet (hence the name) as well as other areas of the body, like the buttocks or backs of the legs. "They aren't typically bothersome, although they might itch a little for older kids," says Blanchard.
3. How is hand, foot and mouth disease contracted? Can adults get hand, foot and mouth disease?
Kids are most susceptible because they aren’t great hand washers and don’t keep their fingers out of their mouths and noses, says Blanchard. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the virus can spread via respiratory secretions, such as mucus and saliva, which are produced when kids cough, sneeze or talk.
It can also be spread from touching fluid from the blisters. If you’ve got a case at home, disinfect surfaces that kids touch, such as toys and doorknobs. It's possible but less common for adults to catch it.
A person with hand, foot and mouth disease is most contagious the first week of illness, and usually before they start to show symptoms. As with other common childhood viruses, preventing the spread is nearly impossible, and teaching kids proper, thorough hand washing from a young age is your best defense.
4. What's the best treatment for hand, foot and mouth disease?
Since it's a virus, it simply needs to run its course, and most children improve after about a week or less spent resting at home, says Blanchard. Medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help pain and fever. Encourage lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. And popsicles can help soothe a sore mouth and throat, says Blanchard.
5. Does the virus make my kid's nails fall off?
Although it doesn't happen to everyone, the virus can stop or slow nail growth, so you may see a line on your child's finger or toe where the old nail was, as well as the new one pushing up from underneath. Symptoms involving the nails can show up anywhere from two to six weeks after the initial infection, and are typically painless. "It's upsetting but not a big deal," says Blanchard. Another common side effect is peeling skin on the hands and feet about a week or two after infection, which can be helped with over-the-counter moisturizer.
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6. When should I seek further medical treatment?
Most of the time, hand, foot and mouth will resolve with rest and hydration, but Blanchard says her main concern is that having sores in the throat and mouth puts kids at risk for dehydration. She says even after the fever passes, parents should make sure kids drink fluids regularly. "Kids are so uncomfortable and it's hard for them to drink… You have to be in there with the straw every ten minutes," she says. If your child does get severely dehydrated, contact your physician as they may need intravenous fluids.
7. When can my child return to school after hand, foot and mouth?
Your child can return to school once they've been fever free for 24 hours. Having a few blisters isn't a huge deal, but if children have what Blanchard calls "widespread open sores," they should wait until those sores have dried up since the virus can occasionally be spread through their fluid.
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This story was originally published in 2018.