Holy Freaking Sh*t, Hand, Foot, Mouth Disease Sucks So Bad

by Elizabeth Broadbent

It started with a fever. Nothing good comes from a fever — every parent knows that. And when the fever starts, all you can do is sit around, cuddle, watch stupid-ass kids’ TV, and wait for the other shoe to drop.

And drop it did, when I looked down at my 2-year-old’s palms and saw the telltale, red-spot blisters rising off them. I yanked up his foot and took a gander. The same blisters dotted his heels and insoles. Then I cajoled him into opening his mouth — not an easy task, which involves lots of mouth-opening and saying “Aaaaaaaaah!” on my part and hoping he would mimic me. Finally, he did. I saw the ulcers in the back of his mouth.


I knew it had been going around; it was the fall, and according to WebMD, hand-foot-mouth disease is most common in the summer and fall. And like so many kid illnesses, there is no treatment other than rest, Popsicles, rest, Tylenol/Advil, sore throat spray, rest, and total quarantine so you don’t unleash this madness on an unsuspecting populace.

This is not the same as hoof-and-mouth disease, which happens to, according to the CDC, “cattle, sheep, and swine,” and doesn’t usually kill them, but leaves them “unable to produce milk or meat the way they used to.” So your kid doesn’t have some crazy-ass disease that he got from livestock. HFM is an enterovirus, the same lovely family that gifted us with polio. And if your kid gets it, it’s probably from close personal contact with an infected person, the cough or sneeze of the infected (because yes, this hellish thing goes airborne, the plaything of a vindictive God), or contact with infected poop or contaminated surfaces.

And while you’re most-contagious for a week after symptoms show — after which you can resume your normal Target-cruising, playground-hopping, daycare-drop-off lifestyle — your kid can remain contagious for up to several weeks (6 to 10 depending on the strain of virus). Isn’t that fantastic?

That means that every time you change a poo diaper, you could be exposing yourself. Despite this, Science News notes that people vary in their recommendations of how long to quarantine yourself. One doc told parents their baby could return to the world at large two days after her fever broke; another said the blisters had to have disappeared to go out. One person heard that you’re not contagious as soon as the fever is gone. So basically, listen to whatever your doc says and watch your kid.

And if you didn’t get a good hearty dose of this virus when you were a kid, well, it might suck to be you.

Like it sucked to be my husband — who didn’t get a good dose of the virus and who came down with a raging fever, miserable mouth blisters, and painful lesions on his hands and feet. I think it included one underneath a thumbnail. He could barely walk. He could barely talk — he moaned instead. Baby was up and spry within two days, climbing the walls and demanding to leave the house. Daddy had to take off several days of work for a childhood illness (HFM usually strikes those under 5) and endure the ridicule of his peers. Then he lost some toenails. This is apparently a common enough complication that it’s listed on the CDC site, underneath meningitis and encephalitis (both rare!).

Like it also sucked to be another relative of mine, who took care of a baby with HFM and changed his diaper. A tidy three-day incubation period later, he was laid up with a high fever. Then the blisters started appearing. He was down to Popsicles and misery. According to HealthXchange, Dr. Ng Chung Wai, a family physician, said, ‘The symptoms of HFMD in children are similar to those in adults. The rash typically consists of red bumps and blisters which affect the palms and/or soles. In some cases, the rash may be just red spots or bumps without blisters, and may also appear on the buttocks, knees or elbows.” This is in addition to the other symptoms, which include fever, ulcers in the throat and mouth and on the tongue, sore throat, and loss of appetite. My lucky relative got all of the above.

I somehow escaped the wrath of HFM. My mom didn’t remember me having it as a kid, but she birthed two daughters within 16 months of each other, so her memory of our early years is understandably blurry. But I must have had it, or I was just hypervigilant with the bleaching and the handwashing (and making my husband change all the poo diapers once he got sick, because hey, he was sick already, right?).

Hand-foot-mouth disease is shockingly common. While the only hard numbers available come from the countries under the jurisdiction of the WHO in the Western Pacific Region, where it’s far more common than it is here (enteroviruses thrive in hot, humid weather), the CDC still classifies it as a “common disease of childhood.” That means that you’re likely to encounter it, whether you want to or not, whether your kid is in daycare or school or not. And your child will be fine, and you will be too.

Short of bleaching every surface you come into contact with, all you can do is practice good handwashing. Know the signs. Be vigilant after changing the diapers of infected children. And don’t be too hard on your husband when he girly-screams as his toenail comes off.