You’ve probably seen warnings about Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD) in airports and other areas that a lot of different people go to and pass through every day. Like chicken pox or measles, contagious diseases all too often make the rounds of schools and preschools, play areas, and more. And like chicken pox or measles, this disease might normally be associated with kids, but adults can catch it, too!
What is Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease is a common viral illness that usually affects infants and children younger than five years old. However, it can sometimes occur in older children and adults. Typical symptoms of Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease include fever, mouth sores, and a skin rash.”
There are several viruses that can cause HFMD; they are often collectively known as nonpolio enteroviruses. HFMD is often mistakenly associated with Foot-and-Mouth Disease (or Foot-and-Mouth Disease), which affects animals such as cattle, pigs, and sheep but not humans.
Is it something you really need to worry about?
Although HFMD is a disease associated with spring, summer, and fall months in temperate countries, in tropical countries like the Philippines, you can be infected at any time of the year. Although in 2017 the cases of HFMD had doubled from the previous year, the DOH’s surveillance report for early 2018 show a decrease of reported cases nationwide.
Most cases of HFMD are found in infants and in kids aged five or younger; adult cases are much rarer. In the January-March 2018 DOH surveillance report, nearly 70 percent of the 156 reported cases were for patients aged one to four years old, with the next biggest group being aged five to nine years old. Reports for patients aged 20 and up were the third most common, but were a very small percentage.
Cases of HFMD normally tend to be mild, clearing up after seven to ten days. You will also develop an immunity to the virus that caused the disease but may still be vulnerable to other virus strains that cause HFMD, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
What are the symptoms of HFMD?
The CDC lists HFMD’s initial symptoms as including:
- Sore throat
- Loss of appetite
- Malaise (or a general feeling of being sick)
A day or two after infection, these additional symptoms appear:
- Small red spots, often in the mouth (especially the back of the mouth, gums, insides of the cheeks, and even the tongue), that can turn into sores
- Rashes on the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, your knees, elbows, buttocks, or genital area may also appear. These rashes may or may not itch.
- Upset stomach
In adult cases especially, it is possible to show little to know symptoms of being infected but still be contagious. You’ll find that most cases, as mentioned, are very mild and will run their course with basic or minimal treatment; however, should you or a loved one display these symptoms and show signs of worsening or if the mouth sores keep you from eating or drinking, it would be a good idea to see a doctor. It would also be best to stay home in the first days or even a week of infection, to avoid spreading the disease to others.
In very rare cases, the same virus that causes HFMD can also lead to complications like viral meningitis or encephalitis, both of which affect the brain and can be fatal, especially in infants and small children who are most vulnerable to HFMD.
How does a person get infected with HFMD? How do you avoid getting it?
HFMD can be transmitted through contact with body fluids of an infected person. This includes coughing or sneezing as well as contact with the fluids from the blisters that are some of the symptoms of the disease.
In general, good attention to hygiene will help lower your risk of infection from HFMD and similar infectious illnesses like the flu:
- Wash your hands carefully with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, practicing proper handwashing methods, especially after using the toilet or coming into contact with any soiled surface and also before you prepare food or eat anything. If handwashing is not possible, using anti-bacterial alcohol wipes or gels will help, but still make it a point to wash your hands as soon as possible.
- In the home and workplace, disinfect dirty surfaces and soiled items, especially in common areas like the kitchen or pantry, dining area, or living area.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes or mouth. If an infected person has coughed or sneezed into their hands and then touches something else, like a doorknob, computer keyboard or mouse, or tabletop, it is possible to contract the disease after you have touched the contaminated surface and then touched food you then ate or touched your eyes or mouth.
- Limit contact with patients. If you are in contact with a patient with HFMD, you may want to avoid kissing or hugging the person, and you should not share things like utensils or food and drinks. HFMD is most infectious during the first week of the illness, but a patient may remain contagious even a few weeks after symptoms go away. If you yourself are sick, take steps to avoid infecting others, especially children, who are the most vulnerable to this illness.
Can adults get HFMD?
Because you gain immunity to the virus that causes HFMD and therefore won’t get sick from the same virus again, adult cases of HFMD are rare. It does happen, though, so practicing good hygiene as a means of prevention is still advisable.
How is HFMD treated?
There isn’t really a specific treatment for HFMD since most cases are mild and will run their course in seven to ten days. According to the Mayo Clinic, however, you can still manage the symptoms by taking over-the-counter medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen for the fever and general discomfort and topical oral anesthetics for the mouth sores and rashes.
The mouth sores and blisters are likely to be the most uncomfortable symptom. To alleviate these, you can try:
- Sucking on ice chips or popsicles
- Drinking iced/cold water
- Avoiding acidic/sour, salty or spicy foods and drinks
- Eating soft foods
- Rinsing your mouth with warm water after meals
- Gargling with warm salt water
What should you do if you suspect you have HFMD?
As it is likely to be a mild case, you should take steps to reduce the chances of infecting others and also treat your symptoms. Stay home from work or school and try not to hug, kiss, or share food or drinks with others while you are feeling poorly. Wash your hands frequently and disinfect common areas in your home and your desk at work. Drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.
If your symptoms worsen, see a doctor. If your workplace requires it, you may also want to see your doctor at the onset of the symptoms to get medical clearance to stay home until your risk of being contagious is reduced.