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It’s Not Strep Throat: Treating Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

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It’s Not Strep Throat: Treating Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Nov 02, 2018

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a virus that can cause rashes on the hands and feet and sores in the mouth—and can sometimes be mistaken for the strep throat infection. Pediatrician Dr. Cindy Gellner tells you how to distinguish the virus from strep throat and other similar illnesses. She also provides tips for treating the virus and how to help your child stay comfortable through their symptoms.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Gellner: So your child has a fever, a sore throat and breaks out in spots on their hands and feet. That's what we'll talk about today. I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner for the Scope.

Announcer: Keep your kids healthy and happy. You are now entering the Healthy Kid Zone with Dr. Cindy Gellner on The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: Your child has a fever, they don't want to eat or drink, they say their throat hurts, you're thinking strep. Well, maybe not. Look at their hands and feet too because we're seeing a virus going around a lot called Coxsackie virus and it causes hand, foot, mouth disease. And normally only kids like six months to five years used to get it but now we're seeing older children and even adults getting it too.

Coxsackie virus lives in mucus and saliva... the child coughs or sneezes and doesn't wash their hands, again, there's the hand washing. It also can be spread through contact with the skin blisters if the hand and feet rash does start to blister which does happen and it also can be spread through bowel movements. Another good reason to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.

So kids are most likely to spread the virus to others during the first week that they have symptoms but the virus can continue to spread for days or even weeks after the symptoms go away. So your child may have been exposed to hand foot and mouth and you wouldn't have known it because the child that they were exposed to is done with their symptoms.

So symptoms usually start about a week after the child comes into contact with the virus and again, it has the fever, the sore throat, stomach pain, headaches, all the things you think of with strep and quite often people will say, "I looked in the back of their throat and it's got these blisters at the back and it's really red and I know it's strep." Not necessarily. You cannot diagnose strep without the swab to test for the strep bacteria.

So, if you see the red spots at the back of the mouth, look also for any red spots, they'll look like little raised purplish red bumps, usually on the fingertips and on the palms, on the bottoms of the feet, you can see them on the top of the feet and on the top of the feet sometimes but much more likely it's going to be on the palms and the soles. We also see it on the legs and on the buttocks and around the mouth.

So what about the fever? Well, the fever actually takes about five days before it will go away but the mouth blisters, the skin blisters, the little bumps there, they can last up to ten days or even two weeks and everyone always says, "Well, can't you do a blood test to make sure this is the virus they have?" Most pediatricians can just take one look at your child and go, "Yep, they've got hand, foot, and mouth disease." Unfortunately there is no specific treatment for it though. Antibiotics don't help, it's a virus.

So, what can you do to make your child feel better? The biggest things are pain and fever control and hydration. You're going to make sure that your child has their pain under control with Tylenol or Motrin. Kids that are a little bit older and who have that can actually, you can get some magic mouthwash prescription. It's got some Benadryl, some Maalox and if your child is old enough to be responsible enough not to swallow it, you can actually have viscous lidocaine in it and your child will be able to gargle and spit that out and that sometimes helps but most of the time just Tylenol, Motrin.

Cold things, popsicles, Gogurts, apple sauce, ice cream, this is one time where we say, "Go ahead and have some ice cream," because you know your child's at least going to get something in there. Those are actually really good ways just to help with the pain. Kids who have the mouth sores are going to be very reluctant to eat or drink much because it hurts, so they're at high risk for having dehydration and that's where you need to make sure popsicles, things like that, things that are high in water content to begin with are going to help them stay hydrated while they get through the mouth sores.

Again the mouth sores can linger for awhile. They're usually the most painful in the first couple days after they show up and then they get a little bit better but they can linger so you definitely want to make sure that your child stays hydrated.

So next time your child wakes up and you think they have strep, look at their hands and their feet. It's always good to come on in. we always do a strep test anytime we see those symptoms with fever, sore throat, red back of the throat, tummy ache, headache, things like that. Usually if the strep test is negative and we have those other findings, you're pretty assured it's a virus.

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updated: November 2, 2018
originally published: August 30, 2014