A viral infection known as hand, foot, and mouth disease is sickening students at Florida State University and other schools around the country. The illness—which spreads through contact with bodily fluids or contaminated surfaces—can cause a rash, fever, blisters in and around the mouth, and painful sores on the hands, feet, and buttocks.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is usually seen in young children, and outbreaks are often linked to daycare centers. But in the last month, it’s been reported at high schools in Indiana, Vermont, and New Jersey.
While hand, foot, and mouth disease can sound—and look—scary, it’s not usually dangerous, says Nadia Qureshi, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Loyola Medicine in Maywood, Illinois. It can be quite uncomfortable, though, and usually lasts five to seven days. There’s no cure and no vaccine to prevent it, so the best treatment is staying hydrated and taking over-the-counter medicine for pain and fever.
The most common cause of hand, foot, and mouth disease is the coxsackievirus, which spreads just like the common cold or flu. Dr. Qureshi says that outbreaks among older children and adults are rare, but not entirely surprising.
“In the past couple of years we’ve seen a new strain of the virus that causes a more severe and more atypical presentation of symptoms, and it does affect children as well as adults,” she says. “And a college dorm is the perfect place for it to spread: People are touching doorknobs, sharing things, living in close proximity to each other, and it’s easy to pass the infection back and forth.”
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The new strain, a natural evolution of the virus, tends to cause a more widespread rash and more painful blisters. But even this form rarely requires medical intervention, except in the case of very young children who have trouble swallowing because of painful blisters in their mouths. In very rare cases, says Dr. Qureshi, the coxsackievirus has been linked to serious brain or heart complications.
According to WCTU TV, FSU administration has speculated that the outbreak may be due to a sewage spill during the recent Hurricane Hermine, or to a related electricity outage that prohibited laundry from being done and allowed germs to spread.
To help prevent new cases, FSU is sanitizing all public spaces on campus, and has advised all living facilities on campus to sanitize their residences, as well. They’ve also encouraged frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers. (CU Boulder also warned students working in science labs that the coxsackievirus can be especially harmful to rodents, and urges them to take “extra care not to spread the disease.”)
Those are smart steps, says Dr. Qureshi. “If you want to avoid it, the most important thing to do is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water, avoid touching your face and your mouth as much as possible, and avoid close contact with someone who has it,” she says. People who’ve had hand, foot, and mouth disease as children don’t seem to have much immunity to the virus, she adds, especially to this relatively new strain.
People can continue to transmit the virus for several weeks after their symptoms are gone, she says, but only through saliva or fecal matter. “If you practice basic good hygiene and you no longer have a fever, you should be fine,” she says. “Just stay away from kissing and sharing cups for a while.”