Painful ulcers in the mouth, small blisters or rashes on the hands, feet and buttocks as well as fever makes Hand Foot Mouth Disease (HFMD) one of the most uncomfortable common childhood illnesses there around.
Caused by viruses - commonly the Coxsackie and Enterovirus 71 - the disease is endemic in Singapore and most of South East Asia. HFMD affects about two million children every year in the region.
The highly infectious disease spreads easily in young children below five years old, and is usually spread through contact with the saliva or mucous of an infected child. HFMD can also be spread via unwashed, virus-contaminated hands and by contact with virus-contaminated surfaces. As such, outbreaks often occur in childcare centres, kindergartens and schools where children play and study together in close proximity.
It can be a pesky illness as there is no cure for it and the infected person has to stay at home until the body has rid itself of the illness. Neither is there a vaccine for it. Scientists are conducting clinical trials to provide a vaccine for HFMD but in the meantime, good personal hygiene habits is really the most important thing to lower the risk of infection. Here's what you need to know about HFMD and how to prevent it:
Those infected run a temperature, feel tired and lose their appetite. These symptoms are followed a couple of days later by blisters, most often in the mouth, palms and soles of the feet. This is how the illness gets its name. Other symptoms include a sore throat and headache. If the mouth ulcers are very painful, it can interfere with intake of food and drink, causing dehydration.
Complications such as brain, lung or heart infections can occur if the Enterovirus 71 virus is involved. The signs of these complications include severe headache, fits, breathlessness or disorientation.
The practice of good hygiene is the first and most basic step of prevention. Parents should teach their children to wash hands with soap before eating and after going to the toilet. One should also cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
Toys have to be cleaned if they are contaminated with nasal or oral secretions before allowing Junior to play with them again. Another good hygiene practice is not sharing eating utensils.
Parents of children who go to childcare centres or kindergartens, where HFMD can spread like wildfire among the children if not careful, should look out for symptoms of the illness in their children and bring them to the doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis if the child may be down with it.
What to do if your child has HFMD:
A child who exhibits symptoms of HFMD should be brought to the doctor for a thorough examination and be kept at home until fully recovered because of the contagious nature of the disease.
Besides giving your child the medicine prescribed by the doctor to relive the symptoms of HFMD, make sure your child drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest. If the child is having difficulties eating because of the mouth ulcers, change the child's meals to a soft diet such as porridge and pureed fruit.
Avoid crowded places such as markets and public transport. Family members should also exercise good hygiene practice such as frequent hand washing, after coming into contact with the child, to prevent the spread of the infection at home. Parents should also inform the child's school as soon as possible so that they can monitor other children closely and take precautions to prevent the spread of HMFD.