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I always prefer natural remedies for illness when it’s appropriate since they often shorten illness (rather than just relieve symptoms). Hand, foot, and mouth disease (strange as the name may be) is just another illness that is usually best tended to at home.
What Is Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease?
Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFM) is a viral infection usually caused by the coxsackievirus. It is about as serious as a bad cold or flu (read: not that serious), except for in very rare cases.
However, it is highly contagious and very uncomfortable and unpleasant for children. HFM typically affects children five and under, and sometimes as old as 10. Occasionally adults may contract it, although it is usually milder.
The incubation period (the time between contracting the virus and developing symptoms) is three to six days. HFM is most contagious in the first week after symptoms begin but can be contagious during the incubation period and for days and weeks after recovery.
It is important to note that hand, foot, and mouth disease is not the same as foot and mouth (aka hoof and mouth) disease, which is an unrelated disease affecting farm animals.
Symptoms of Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease
HFM can be confused with strep throat or chicken pox so keeping an eye on symptoms is important.
Early symptoms include:
- sore throat
- reduced appetite
- general feeling of being unwell
A day or two after the fever begins, painful sores can develop in the mouth (which may turn into blisters). Flat, red sores or a red rash often appear on the hands and feet as well (they may also appear in the knee, elbow, genital, or buttock areas). These sores/rashes may turn into blisters and are often painful but not itchy.
Because the sores in the mouth can cause children and infants to not want to drink, dehydration is another possible side effect and something to watch out for.
While hand, foot, and mouth isn’t usually dangerous, in rare instances viral meningitis or encephalitis may occur with HFM. Additionally, some children who get hand, foot, and mouth end up losing their fingernails and toenails as they recover — a little alarming! — but this is usually temporary and nails grow back quickly. (In mild cases, this may be the only sign that there was an infection to begin with!)
Ways to Avoid Hand, Foot, and Mouth
Hand, foot, and mouth disease spreads through body fluids and close personal contact. Children in childcare settings are more likely to contract HFM simply because they are in close quarters with other children (and young children tend to put everything in their mouths!).
If someone in your social circle or family has HFM it’s a good idea to go into prevention mode for the rest of your family. Wash hands frequently and avoid contact with ill people and infected items (like tissues).
Additionally, exclusive breastfeeding protects against HFM infections, according to one study.
Other ways to stave off hand, foot, and mouth infection are:
- elderberry syrup
- vitamin C
- vitamin D
- omega-3 fatty acids
- healthy diet
- keeping surfaces and toys clean (with natural cleaners)
Immune-Boosting Remedies for Hand, Foot, and Mouth
Since it is a viral infection, antibiotics won’t work (and could be harmful). Because HFM is almost always mild, treatment is more about making the patient comfortable and supporting the immune system.
Hmm… I have some natural remedies around the house that do just that!
Since dehydration is a big concern, getting the child enough fluids is one of the first things to consider. If the child isn’t up for drinking because of the mouth sores, try offering homemade popsicles made with coconut water or elderberries. The coldness of the popsicle should help soothe the sores and get much needed fluid into the child. Electrolyte drinks, herbal teas, coconut water, and bone broth are other ways to improve hydration.
Though food isn’t a big concern during illness (it’s more important for the body to focus on healing than on digestion) it’s still important to stick with the highest quality nutrient-dense foods that the child can stomach. Bone broth is one great example as it can be soothing to the throat and mouth but also contains a lot of nutrients. Another food that can have a big impact on healing is coconut oil as it’s antiviral and can help fight the virus (good for healing mouth sores, too). Avoid acidic foods that can irritate mouth sores further.
Almost all herbs have some medicinal use but some are better suited for kids than others. Herbs with antiviral properties that taste good are best for kids who have HFM or other viral infections. These include:
- Lemon Balm – A calming herb similar to chamomile that is also antiviral. Lemon balm is one of the safest herbs for children and infants. I use it as a tea.
- Calendula – An incredible healing herb, calendula is mild flavored and great in a tea for healing mouth sores. It can also be sprayed on hand and foot sores for better healing. Calendula is also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial which can help avoid a secondary infection in the sores. I order it in bulk here.
- Elderberry – Possibly the tastiest herb available, elderberry is usually well received by kids of all ages and is a potent antiviral. Make it into syrup or as a tea.
- Astragalus – One study found that astragalus has antiviral properties, specifically when the virus that causes HFM is present. This is another one that’s easy to take as a tea.
- Quercetin – A flavonoid found in rooibos tea, apples, dark berries and cherries, peppers, cruciferous veggies, leafy veggies, sage, and much more. Quercetin has been shown to fight the coxsackie virus. Get it from food or a high quality supplement.
There are many other antiviral herbs but they have stronger tastes. If you’re not sure if your child will accept the strong taste, consider using a tincture instead. A tincture can often be masked with a nice spoonful of raw honey. Other immune-boosting herbs that can be used in tea, tincture, or food are:
- marshmallow root
- licorice (I make marshmallow licorice tea… two remedies in one)
Tip: Add more robust herbs (like oregano and rosemary) to bone broth instead of a tea for a better flavor combination.
While an illness isn’t always the best time to push the maintenance supplements (especially if the patient is having trouble swallowing), I find thatProbiotics and vitamin C are an exception. I also keep bee propolis on hand for myself and older children when sick as a natural first defense.
A nice warm detox bath may help soothe sores and reduce discomfort while removing impurities from the body.
Reduce the Fever or Not?
I don’t usually recommend reducing a fever, since a fever is the body’s best defense against viral invaders.
Despite what some believe, a fever of less than 103 degrees will not cause brain damage and a fever from a virus will usually not go above this temperature, unless other factors are present (like high environmental temperatures). In fact, a fever is a good sign that the body is doing what it should!
If a fever is 103 to 104 degrees and I know it’s not the result of poisoning, severe bacterial infection, heat stroke, or toxins, I personally find it best to wait it out and monitor symptoms. However, with this and all medical decisions, it’s important to do your own research, talk with your doctor, and consult your intuition so you can feel confident in your decision to wait or not wait.
The Bottom Line on Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease
HFM is a fairly mild illness (though uncomfortable and unpleasant) and will usually run its course in a week or two. In the meantime, support the immune system with healthy foods, supplements, and antiviral herbs to relieve symptoms and speed healing.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Michelle Sands, ND. She is double board certified in Integrative Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine and is also a Board-Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and competitive endurance athlete. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Has anyone in your family ever had HFMD? What helped?