Hand, foot and mouth disease, or HFMD as it is commonly known, is a highly contagious viral illness that usually affects young children. In the United States, summer and early fall are the most common times for outbreaks; however, in more tropical areas of the nation, outbreaks can occur any time of the year.
Hand, foot and mouth disease is frequently found in childcare settings where frequent diaper changes and potty training allows the virus to spread quickly from person to person. In fact, older teens and adults may never experience signs or symptoms of HFMD; however, they can still transmit it during the first week or so the virus is active.
Children can continue to spread the disease for weeks, or even months, after the signs and symptoms have dissipated as the virus actively lives in feces. It is essential that good hygiene practices are taught from an early age. Also, household surfaces including bathroom fixtures, doorknobs, countertops and toys should be thoroughly disinfected regularly.
The good news is that hand, foot and mouth disease is rarely serious and severe complications are extremely rare. But, with a healthy immune system, as we age, we develop a natural immunity to the disease, building antibodies after an initial exposure to the virus. Treatments for HFMD focus on providing comfort, relieving pain, preventing dehydration, and strengthening the immune system.
What Is Hand Foot and Mouth Disease?
This common viral illness primarily affects infants and children under the age of 5. However, older children, teens, and adults can all contract hand, foot and mouth disease. A few days after exposure to the virus, painful sores appear in the mouth, hands, and feet — explaining the name for the disease. Some people may also experience painful lesions on the buttocks, legs, and elbows.
Generally, an HFMD outbreak doesn’t last too long. In fact, for most people with a properly functioning immune system, the symptoms go away after a week or 10 days. While similar in name, it is in no way related to hoof and mouth disease that affects livestock including cows, pigs, sheep, goats and deer. Different viruses cause the two diseases and they are not related. Humans don’t get the animal disease and animals don’t get the human disease. (1)
Common Signs and Symptoms
The incubation period for hand, foot and mouth disease is typically between three and six days, and people are generally asymptomatic during this time. The first signs after exposure to the virus include general malaise, reduced appetite, sore throat and a slight fever. A couple of days after that, the painful sores start to develop, often first appearing in the mouth.
Next, small red spots appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and the spread of the rash may end there. Or, the rash may spread to the buttocks, elbows, knees and even genitals. Then, as the red spots morph into blisters, they will start to break open and crust over. The fluid inside contains the virus. So, it is imperative to wash hands and any household items that may have come into contact with the fluid. (2)
Causes and Risk Factors
The question often arises, how do you get hand, foot and mouth disease and the answer is: from bodily fluids. This disease is most often transmitted through secretions from the nose and throat. But the fluid from the blisters and feces can also transmit the virus. The virus can spread through close personal contact as the virus is airborne. Also, it can live on a variety of objects and surfaces for quite some time. In addition, it is possible to get hand, foot and mouth disease by swimming in non-chlorinated water; however, transmission is considered unlikely.
The viruses that cause HFMD belong to the enterovirus group. The most common cause in the United States is the Coxsackievirus A16 virus, but the Enterovirus 71 is also associated with outbreaks. Risk factors for the disease include:
- Age: being an infant or young child not yet exposed to the virus
- Environment: spending time with young children in close quarters, such as childcare centers
- Poor hygiene practices: not washing hands enough, particularly when in a group of children
A special note about preventing HFMD:
According to a study published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life may help protect against some infections. The study found that the protection lasted 28 months, and that breastfeeding acts as a natural protection against a variety of infections, including hand, foot and mouth disease. (3)
Hand, foot and mouth disease is typically diagnosed by an examination of the sores and rashes. Some physicians may order throat swabs and feces tests to determine the type of virus. There are no specific treatments recommended for HFMD. Doctors may recommend over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain and fever, as well as a topical oral anesthetic to relieve the pain in the mouth. Symptoms usually resolve in seven to 10 days.
17 Natural Treatments for Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease
- Coconut Water Ice Cubes. Dehydration is a problem with HFMD as the sores and blisters in the mouth can make eating and drinking extremely painful. Frozen coconut water cubes can help to relieve the pain and discomfort, but more importantly, because of the high potassium levels and high electrolytes, it is the perfect way to stave off dehydration.
- Cool Foods and Soups. While chewing coarse or crunchy foods is too painful, providing healthy cold summer soups helps to ensure that the body is getting the nutrients it needs to aid in recovery from the virus. Avoid foods that are salty, spicy or acidic; some fruits may be too acidic and cause more irritation and pain.
- Rinse Mouth After Eating. To get rid of any potential irritants in the mouth, mix ½ teaspoon pink Himalayan salt in a glass of tepid water. Swoosh in the mouth, spit out and repeat. This amazing salt helps to balance pH levels, supporting a healthy immune system response.
- Oil Pulling. While this won’t work for young children, older children and adults should use coconut oil for oil pulling. The lauric acid fights bacteria in the mouth, provides a detoxing effect, and creates an environment that is hostile to viruses, including those responsible for HFMD.
- Coconut Oil. Gently applying coconut oil on the rash and blisters may help to speed healing. The antimicrobial and antiviral compounds in coconut oil can provide relief and may help prevent the spread of the disease.
- Epsom Salt Bath with Essential Oils. Long used to soothe skin and detoxify the body, a long soak in a bath with Epsom salts may speed healing and provide relief from the pain and discomfort. Try my favorite recipe, homemade healing bath salts, and soak as long as possible to reap the benefits.
- Bone Broth. To ensure that adequate nutrition is making its way into the body, sip homemade bone broth. Bone broth’s high collagen content supports healthy skin. And, during and after an outbreak of HFMD, the skin can use the boost it provides.
- Astragalus. This adaptogen herb has been shown to stimulate the immune system while inhibiting the Coxsackie and other viruses. (4) In fact, astragalus is available in tinctures, capsules, teas and topical applications at many health food stores and Chinese markets.
- Ginger Root Tea. Ginger has been used for 1,000s of years to heal wounds and ulcers. For a refreshing cool drink, take a 1-inch piece of peeled and bruised ginger root, and simmer it with a quart of water for 20 minutes. Strain and cool to room temperature. Then, to add a touch of sweetness and healing properties, mix in just a teaspoon or two of raw honey.
- Rooibos Tea. Known as a potent natural anti-inflammatory, rooibos tea can help to speed healing while fighting the virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease. In fact, a wide range of research studies shows that quercetin, a compound in rooibos tea inhibits the IAV (influenza A), EBV (Epstein-Barr), Enterovirus and the coxsackievirus. A cup of tea a day may help to speed healing while fighting the virus. (5), (6), (7)
- Tea Tree Oil. Widely recognized as a powerful antiviral, antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial compound, adding a few drops of tea tree oil to your favorite liquid hand soap can help prevent further spread and contamination. This amazing essential oil, tea tree oil can help speed healing during a bout of hand, foot and mouth disease. Children and women who are pregnant should not use tea tree oil.
- Echinacea. One of the most powerful and effective herbs available today, echinacea is proven to boost the immune system, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, improve skin problems, and fight infections. Some studies indicate that echinacea extracts, not capsules or pills, are most effective for immune system support. (8)
- Elderberry. Leading the pack of antiviral herbs, elderberry has been used for 1,000s of years to boost the immune system, fight viruses, aid in healthy glucose levels, and promote healthy skin. For hand, foot and mouth disease, make a homemade elderberry syrup to soothe the pain and facilitate a speedy recovery.
- Lemon Essential Oil. A natural disinfectant, lemon essential oil is also known to support immune system response, and when applied topically, it deeply nourishes skin. Add a few drops to your favorite hand soap or body wash to fight viruses and infections while supporting good skin health.
- Lavender Oil. To get a good night’s sleep during a painful HFMD outbreak, diffuse lavender essential oil in the bedroom. A randomized, single-blinded pilot study shows that diffusing lavender essential oil is an effective treatment for insomnia. (9)
- Clove Oil. One of my favorite essential oils for a sore throat, clove oil, has strong antiviral, antifungal, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties, making it an ideal home remedy for hand, foot and mouth disease. Mix a few drops with a teaspoon of coconut oil, swirl in the mouth for a couple of minutes to relieve the pain and discomfort in the mouth and throat. Do not use if you are pregnant or for small children.
- Licorice Root. Research shows that licorice root has broad-spectrum antiviral activity, making it perfect for fighting a wide array of viruses, including HFMD. Research indicates that triterpenoid, the active antiviral component, actually fights a wide range of viruses. Make a licorice root tea and enjoy warm or cool with a spot of raw honey, as desired to get the best results. (10)
While rare, some serious complications can occur with hand, foot and mouth disease.
- Dehydration. Protect against severe dehydration by supplying cool fluids throughout the day.
- Fingernail and toenail loss. Depending on the state of the virus, children may lose fingernails or toenails; this is often temporary with nails growing back over the next month.
- Viral meningitis. This rare, but serious condition, can occur. It is the most common type of meningitis and affects the tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. (11)
- Encephalitis. This extremely rare disease is life-threatening. Symptoms can mimic flu-like symptoms. However, if any sign of seizures, paralysis, loss of speech, body stiffness, loss of consciousness, or bulging in soft spots of the skull of infants occurs, seek emergency medical attention immediately. (12)
Special note for travelers to the Far East, Asia and Africa. Outbreaks of hand, foot and mouth disease are much more common and special precautions to guard against infection should be employed. It is imperative that you practice good personal hygiene practices, including routine hand washing throughout your travels to prevent infection. (13)
- Coxsackievirus A16 virus and Enterovirus 71 cause hand, foot and mouth disease.
- HFMD is extremely contagious and spreads through contact with saliva, mucus, feces and the fluid from blisters.
- The viruses that cause HFMD are airborne, and can live on household surfaces; disinfecting toys, door knobs, toilets and other common areas is essential to prevent spread.
- Good hygiene practices including hand washing can help prevent the disease.
- Effective natural treatments to soothe the discomfort and pain, strengthen the immune system, and fight the virus, exist and should be employed.
- Take special precautions when traveling in the Far East, Middle East and Africa where hand, foot and mouth disease outbreaks are more common.
- Breastfeeding may help to protect young children from hand, foot and mouth disease, as well as other infections.