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Hand, foot and mouth disease: It’s out there now, and you don’t want to get it

By Justine Griffin
Health officials recommend washing hands frequently and sanitizing toys, clothes and other items as often as possible to avoid the spread of hand, foot and mouth disease. The disease can result in blister-like dots or rashes, and other symptoms including fever, fatigue and decreased appetite. [iStockphoto]

The last thing parents want to deal with is a sick child around the holidays.

That’s why doctors across the Tampa Bay area are warning parents to be vigilant against hand, foot and mouth disease, a highly contagious virus that sometimes causes painful, blister-like sores to develop on the hands and feet, and in and around the mouth. While peak seasons for the virus are usually in the summer and early fall, there’s been an uptick in the number of local cases lately as we ease into winter, according to day care operators and health department officials.

It’s hard to pin down a reason for the recent rise in reported cases, health professionals say, but outbreaks are fairly common during seasonal changes.

The disease is most commonly diagnosed in young children because it is spread through bodily fluids like saliva, mucus and feces. Adults can still contract the virus but are less likely to have the same painful symptoms, said Dr. Juan Dumois, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

"If you change a baby’s diaper and get it on your hands, or a child puts a toy in their mouth and then another child touches that toy or puts it in their mouth, (these) are all common ways it spreads," Dumois said. "The illness usually has no long-term side effects. But someone can still be contagious even after the symptoms are gone."

The illness is caused by the coxsackie virus, which has no medicinal cure, doctors say. And, like chicken pox, it usually resolves by itself in a couple of weeks. In addition to blister-like dots or rashes, other common symptoms include fever, fatigue and decreased appetite.

"Some people do not have lesions, some do. They tend to be painful. Others get red spots on the skin," Dumois said. "We don’t see it as often in adults. They are more likely to have caught the virus as a child so they likely have immunity. Those that do catch it may just have a fever or feel general achiness for a few days."

The Hortin Child Development Center at Christ United Methodist Church in downtown St. Petersburg experienced its first-ever case of hand, foot and mouth disease in November, said the day care facility’s director, Jessica Passman.

"Parents get really freaked out over it because of the name of the disease," Passman said. "Unfortunately there’s just not much you can do to prevent it, and we just have to get through this annoying, uncomfortable part and try to keep other children from contracting it. The virus can lie dormant without symptoms for about a week, which means we can have an infected child here and not know about it. That’s what makes it so scary."

Sarah Brown, who lives in Manatee County just south of the Hillsborough County line, contracted hand, foot and mouth disease while she was pregnant with her son last year. Brown, 29, described the experience as miserable.

"I couldn’t sleep. My hands were on fire. My feet got blisters and I had red spots all around my mouth and underwear line," she said. "I ended up losing two fingernails and two toenails from it."

Brown’s 7-month-old son, Garrett, got it next, just two weeks ago, she said.

"I’d never heard of it until I got it," said Brown, who thinks she contracted it by handling cash at her job as a cashier at a local farmer’s market. Her son often comes to work with her. "I’m pretty good at washing my hands before picking him up and keeping an eye on his toys. I guess the good news is now that we’ve had it, we won’t get it again."

It’s worth noting that there are different strains of the virus, so it is possible to contract it more than once.

Local health departments do track the disease, but are not required to report it like Zika and other more serious outbreaks, said Maggie Hall, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.

"We tend to see a certain increase during the fall months, so we’re certainly in that period of activity now. We get reports from day care facilities and childcare centers. So far this year, we’ve seen 15 outbreaks, meaning more than one case per center. For the same period last year, we saw 13 outbreaks."

The health department recommends washing hands frequently and sanitizing toys, clothes and other items as often as possible. At the Hortin center in St. Petersburg, Passman said day-care staffers are sanitizing toys and other items in the facility every morning as opposed to the usual routine of once a week.

"All the teachers are physically washing the hands of every 2-year-old. We’re literally standing in the bathroom and doing it for them," said Passman, who mentioned that the state day care licensing board doesn’t allow staff members to use sanitizer, as opposed to soap, on children under 2.

Dumois said many pediatric clinics have removed toys from their waiting rooms for the same sanitation reasons and to avoid the spread of infectious diseases like hand, foot and mouth.

"We recommend avoiding lip-to-lip kissing to stop spreading the virus and washing hands," he said. "Parents can give infected children Tylenol or ibuprofen for pain if they are uncomfortable. Otherwise, it just needs to run its course."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.