Navigation

Hand, foot and mouth disease


Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due May 2021

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common childhood viral illness. It gets its name from the fact that it causes blisters on your hands and feet, and ulcers in your mouth. While it may be unpleasant, it’s usually a mild illness that you usually recover from within a week or two.

Hand, foot and mouth disease has no relation to foot and mouth disease, which is a disease that affects cattle, sheep and pigs.

A woman sitting with her child on her laptop

About hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is most common in children under 10, especially those under four. You can get it at any age though, including as an adult. Most adults will have been in contact with the disease as a child though, and so are immune. In the UK, it’s most common to get it in the late summer to early autumn.

Hand foot and mouth disease is extremely contagious – you can catch and spread it easily. The disease often spreads among groups of children, particularly in nurseries and schools. The viruses that cause the disease are most often spread in droplets of mucus or saliva in the air, when someone who has it coughs or sneezes. You can also get it by direct contact with the fluid from the blisters of a person infected with the virus. An infected person can also spread the virus if they don’t wash their hands properly after going to the toilet, as the virus can be passed in faeces.

You are most contagious while you still have blisters and mouth ulcers – which is usually for up to seven to 10 days. But you can continue to pass the virus in your faeces for several weeks, so you may still be mildly infectious during this time. See our section on Prevention of hand, foot and mouth disease for information on how to stop it spreading. Find out whether you should send your child to school in our FAQ: Can my child go to school with hand, foot and mouth disease?

Symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease

Symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease usually appear three to seven days after you’re infected with the virus (known as the incubation period). The symptoms generally last for around seven to 10 days.

For the first few days, you may feel generally unwell, with symptoms such as:

  • a fever
  • a sore throat
  • a cough
  • losing your appetite
  • generally feeling unwell
  • pain in your abdomen (tummy)

These symptoms are similar to those of many other viral infections. However, within a few days, you may start to develop symptoms that are more typical of hand, foot and mouth disease. These include the following.

  • Blisters or ulcers in your mouth. These usually develop within a couple of days from when you started feeling unwell. They’re most common on the roof of your mouth, the inside of your cheek and your tongue, which can make eating and drinking painful.
  • Spots or blisters on your hands and feet. These tend to develop soon after the blisters in your mouth. You may have them on the palms and backs of your hands, the sides of your fingers, and the soles and heels of your feet. The blisters often ulcerate (break down) and crust over. Sometimes, they may be painful or itchy. It’s possible to get a rash, or blisters on your buttocks and in your groin too.

Blisters on a child's hand caused by hand, foot and mouth disease

Ulcers on the tongue caused by hand, foot and mouth disease 

You may have some, but not all of these symptoms. For instance, you may just develop the blisters in your mouth, but not on your hands or feet.

You won’t need to see your GP if you or your child have these symptoms and they’re mild, as you can usually manage them at home. If you or your child is becoming more unwell though, contact your GP surgery for advice.

Seeking help for hand, foot and mouth disease

You don’t usually need to see your GP for hand, foot and mouth disease, especially if you know it’s been going around at your child’s school or nursery. Normally you only need to seek advice if your child is becoming more unwell, or if you’re unsure what’s causing the symptoms. If this is the case, you should contact your GP surgery for advice.

Your GP will usually be able to tell if you have hand, foot and mouth disease by checking the spots or blisters on your body and ulcers in your mouth.

Self-help for hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease usually clears up on its own after around seven to 10 days. There isn't a specific treatment for the disease – antibiotics won’t work as it’s a virus, not a bacterial infection. There are a number of things you can do to help relieve your symptoms though.

  • Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids to prevent yourself from becoming dehydrated.
  • If you have painful mouth ulcers, stick to soft foods such as soup or mashed potato.
  • If you need pain relief or have a high temperature, take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • You can use mouth gels that contain lidocaine (eg a teething gel), or mouth sprays containing benzydamine to soothe painful mouth ulcers. Adults and children over the age of 12 can also use mouthwashes containing benzydamine, and (above the age of 16), choline salicylate gel (eg Bonjela).

Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine. If you need any advice about what types of medicines to use for you or your child’s symptoms, you can check with a pharmacist.

Causes of hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is usually caused by a group of viruses known as the coxsackieviruses. The one that most commonly causes the disease is coxsackie virus A16.

Another virus called enterovirus 71 (EV71) can occasionally cause a more severe form of hand, foot and mouth disease. EV71 is uncommon in the UK.

The virus is very easily spread. It’s passed from one person to another through coughing or sneezing and from direct contact with fluid from blisters. It’s also passed on in an infected person’s faeces – they can spread it if they don’t wash their hands properly after going to the toilet.

Complications of hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is usually a mild infection. However, occasionally it can lead to more serious problems.

  • Dehydration. This is the most common complication. Blisters in your mouth might make drinking painful – and so you don’t end up drinking enough. Young children are especially prone to dehydration. Signs that you, or your child may be dehydrated include feeling thirsty, having a dry mouth and not passing urine as often (see Keeping hydrated for more information). Seek medical help if you think you or your child is dehydrated. If this is severe, you may need to be admitted to hospital, so you can be given fluids through a drip into your arm.
  • Skin infection. It’s possible that the blisters on your skin can become infected, especially if you scratch them. If your skin is becoming very red and you develop a high temperature, see your doctor. You may need antibiotics.

Other, more serious complications are much rarer, and are generally related to a more severe type of hand, foot and mouth disease caused by a virus called enterovirus 71 (EV71). Most people in the UK won’t have this form of the disease.

If you or your child is becoming more unwell or you don’t seem to be getting better after a week or so, see your doctor for advice.

Pregnancy

Hand, foot and mouth disease isn’t thought to cause any risk to your developing baby if you get it when you’re pregnant. It makes sense to try and avoid close contact with anyone who has it though, especially if you’re getting close to your due date. If you get hand, foot and mouth disease within the three weeks before you’re due to give birth, there’s a possibility you may pass the infection to your newborn baby. If you develop symptoms such as a rash when you’re pregnant, talk to your midwife or GP for advice.

Prevention of hand, foot and mouth disease

Hand, foot and mouth disease is spread very easily. There are some things you can do to reduce your risk of catching or spreading it.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before you eat and after you go to the toilet.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Use a tissue and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Clean surfaces that may have been in contact with saliva or faeces with cleaning products containing bleach.
  • Dispose properly of used tissues and nappies after changing your baby.
  • Wash soiled clothing, towels and bedding at a hot temperature.
  • Don’t share cups, utensils or towels with people who are infected.
  • Don’t deliberately pierce blisters.
  • Try to avoid contact with other people – particularly pregnant women – as much as you can while you have symptoms.

An infographic from Bupa UK on how to wash your hands properly

Frequently asked questions

  • The main difference between chickenpox and hand, foot and mouth disease is where the blisters develop on your body. If you have hand, foot and mouth disease, you tend to get blisters on your hands and feet, and blisters or ulcers in your mouth. If you have chickenpox, you’ll usually get spots all over your body, face, scalp, arms and legs. With chickenpox, the spots gradually progress to blisters – and then eventually crust over. They’re also very itchy, whereas the blisters you get with hand, foot and mouth disease don’t tend to itch as much.

    Like hand, foot and mouth disease, chickenpox is caused by a virus, which means it’s managed in a similar way. Antibiotics aren’t effective for viruses. You can generally manage the symptoms of both infections at home, by making sure you’re getting enough fluids and taking paracetamol to reduce any fever. Very occasionally, chickenpox can become more of a serious illness – particularly in adults and in people who have a reduced immune system. If you have severe chickenpox or you’re at risk of complications, your GP may prescribe an antiviral medicine called aciclovir. This can reduce your chance of developing complications.

    If you’re concerned about your symptoms, contact your GP surgery for advice.

  • Your child shouldn’t go to school or nursery if they’re feeling unwell. But official guidance is that children don’t need to be kept away from nursery, school or other settings, so long as they feel well. Different child care providers may have their own rules though, so you should check with your own child’s nursery or school.

    Ideally, it’s best to limit contact with other people as much as you can, if you have hand, foot and mouth disease. But keeping your child off school for a few days won’t completely stop the risk of the infection spreading. Your child may still be infectious for several weeks after having the illness, even after their symptoms have cleared up. This is because they may still pass the virus in their faeces. They can then pass this on to others if they don’t wash their hands properly after going to the toilet.

    It’s better to teach your child good hygiene measures – such as washing their hands after using the toilet or blowing their nose – to reduce spread to other children.

  • It’s possible, although most adults are immune to the virus that most commonly causes the disease.

    More information

    If you get hand, foot and mouth disease, you become immune to the specific virus that caused it. This means you won’t get that particular virus again. However, there are several different viruses that cause hand, foot and mouth disease. Even if you’re immune to one, you’re still at risk of becoming infected with another – and you may then develop hand, foot and mouth disease again.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. That’s why our content is produced to the highest quality standards. Look out for the quality marks on our pages below. You can find out more about these organisations and their standards on The Information Standard and HON Code websites.

Information standard logo  This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

    • Hand, foot and mouth disease. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published February 2016
    • Hand-foot-and-mouth disease. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed March 2018
    • Hand, foot and mouth disease. PatientPlus. www.patient.info, last checked 9 July 2015
    • Hand-foot-and-mouth disease. Management - Approach. BMJ Best Practice. http://bestpractice.bmj.com/topics/en-gb/685/management-approach, last reviewed March 2018
    • Infectious disease. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online April 2014
    • Benzydamine hydrochloride. NICE British National Formulary. www.bnfc.nice.org.uk, last updated 3 April 2018
    • Dehydration in children. PatientPlus. patient.info, last checked 23 April 2014
    • The spotty book: notes on infectious diseases in schools and nurseries. Public Health England, October 2017. www.england.nhs.uk
    • Chickenpox. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised October 2016
    • Hand, foot and mouth disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, last updated 26 June 2017

  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, May 2018
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due May 2021



Has our health information helped you?

We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short survey on the right will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.



ajax-loader