What is hand, foot and mouth?

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a mild, contagious virus that is really common in young children.


"Hand, foot and mouth is generally caused by a Coxsackie virus. It is totally different from the foot and mouth disease that animals can get," says GP Dr Philippa Kaye.

It spreads quickly through schools and nurseries, but adults and older children can get it, too.

It usually clears up by itself within a week or 10 days.

What are the symptoms of hand, foot and mouth?

Symptoms to look out for are:

More like this
  • a fever
  • sore throat
  • general feeling of being unwell
  • painful blisters on the inside of cheeks, tongue and gums
  • a red rash on the soles of feet and the palms of the hands
  • loss of appetite

While the rash is usually on the hands, feet and mouth, “it can occur on the rest of the body, often on the buttocks," says Dr Philippa.

The incubation period - the time it takes from being infected to the symptoms appearing - is 3 to 6 days.

A fever is often the first sign of it, followed by a sore throat. A few days after the fever, the spots and rash will come out.

"The child may be unwell with a fever, cough and decreased appetite," says Dr Philippa. "The blisters may be painful and mean that your child doesn’t want to eat."

Is hand, foot and mouth infectious?

Hand, foot and mouth is very infectious, yes.

What does hand, foot and mouth look like?

"A rash forms on the hands and feet which can then turn into blisters (which may be filled with a greyish looking fluid). Ulcers or white lesions also appear in the mouth," says Dr Philippa.

hand foot and mouth from MFM forum

MadeForMums community member Kelly shared this picture of her baby suffering from it.

How does hand, foot and mouth spread?

It is spread through direct contact with an infected person's unwashed hands or contaminated surfaces.

It can also be spread through an infected person's saliva or stools (when you change your baby's nappy, for example), or when your child sneezes.

How can you stop hand, foot and mouth spreading?

The best way to stop it spreading is to practice good hygiene. Wash your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds after changing your baby's nappy, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

It's also worth making sure the person with hand, foot and mouth uses their own utensils, cups, towels etc.

How do you treat hand, foot and mouth disease?

If your child has a mild case of hand, foot and mouth, there isn’t much you can do except make sure they’re eating and drinking enough. Keep an eye on their fever, though.

"You don’t need to do anything in particular apart from giving them plenty of fluids and medicines to bring the fever down if required or to treat pain.

"Cold drinks or ice lollies may ease a sore mouth," says Dr Philippa.

Some other tips to help include:

  • Avoid giving salty, acidic or spicy food when they have mouth blisters.
  • Offer soft foods.
  • Ice-cold drinks and lollies can help ease their discomfort.
  • If your GP agrees, you can give your child Calpol (if they’re older than 3 months) or Ibuprofen (if they’re older than 6 months).

The illness will run its course on its own, though. Lots of hand-washing can help stop it from spreading.

Community member Gemma says: "The spots were horrid, they die down to scab-type things.

"I think if I remember he just had Calpol and ibuprofen for the discomfort and I’m sure he had an antihistamine as well."

Can adults catch hand, foot and mouth?

Yes, adults as well as children can catch it. As Anna, a member the MadeForMums community said: "My little boy had this recently - we thought it was chickenpox but it turns out it was this!

"He was only poorly for a day, and then he got the spots that cleared in a week. Hubby got it too which is unusual for adults to catch."

Is hand, foot and mouth dangerous if you’re pregnant?

If you get it when pregnant, try not to worry: the chance of your baby being affected is very small. But you should visit your GP just to get checked out.


Community member Selina shared her experience: "My daughter caught [it] from school just before the half-term hols in February.

"She had to stay off school for a week and during that time I also caught it… it really freaked me out and we both went to see the doctor.

"I mentioned to him that we were trying for a baby and would it affect me. He said "NO".

We had to cancel our romantic Valentine dinner because of my mouth blisters and palms hurting so much but, on the other hand, we did succeed in making a baby on Valentine’s Day."

How long will hand, foot and mouth last?

"About 7 -10 days," says Dr Philippa.

MadeForMums community member Rachel says, "[My daughter who had hand foot and mouth] was probably ill for about a week, had the spots for about 10 days. She was moany, couldn't eat as her mouth was full of blisters."

Do you need to take your child to the doctor if they have hand, foot and mouth?

Hand, foot and mouth isn’t a serious virus and it will usually clear up on its own. But see your doctor if your child’s mouth sores keep them from eating or drinking, or if their symptoms worsen.


Do you need to keep your child off school or nursery with hand, foot and mouth?

"There is no school exclusion with hand, foot and mouth disease,” says Dr Philippa. That’s the NHS’s advice - but many schools and nurseries will have their own policies.

Let your child’s school or nursery know so they can inform other members of staff and parents. Keep them at home if it's in line with your school or nursery’s policy, or if:

  • your child feels generally unwell with it
  • has open blisters
  • has a temperature.

Community member Sienna says, "I work in a childcare setting. Our policy states that a child with hand, foot and mouth is not allowed into nursery. If we notice it, we ring the parents and they have to collect their child.

"It’s highly contagious, even though it’s airborne it does tend to spread like wildfire... Goodness knows why docs say it’s ok for schools etc to take children with it, it’s so unpleasant."


But Laura, another member of the MadeForMums community, has a different view. "When P had it I was told by 2 different doctors and a nurse that there is no reason to keep them home when they have it... They are most infectious BEFORE spots appear so it's [like] shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

"I followed their advice and took P swimming and to toddler groups when she had it. Not one other child from any of the 3 groups picked it up.

"The exception is of course if they are feeling unwell, which P was for a couple of days but actually the groups perked her up no end."

Can you get hand, foot and mouth more than once?

"Once you have had it, you can get it again but generally immunity builds up over time," says Dr Philippa.

Pics: Getty unless otherwise stated

About our expert GP Philippa Kaye

Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.


Read more