My 3-year-old had a fever on Thursday night, spent Friday on the couch watching Cars on repeat while refusing to eat anything but applesauce, and woke up Saturday morning with red spots in the back of his mouth. If you have a child under the age of five, you probably already know that I spent the weekend in hand, foot, and mouth disease hell, and apparently I'm not the only one. My deskmate at the office's son had it last month, the lady at the nail salon said a few of her clients' kids got it, a friend told me she overheard a group of moms lamenting about it at the gym, and a woman I met at a birthday party sympathized with me since her toddler had just gotten over it. It's not a coincidence that it's going around; the virus, which usually starts with a fever followed by painful sores in the mouth and a skin rash on the hands and feet, is most common in the Summer and early Fall and is, you guessed it, extremely contagious.
HFMD, not to be confused with hoof and mouth disease or foot and mouth disease, lives in saliva and mucus, which, as luck would have it, a toddler is highly skilled at wiping on furniture, clothing, people, and various other objects with reckless abandon. It is also spread through feces (yes, poop). As disgusting as it may be, parents of small children know that poop is not just neatly contained to diapers and toilets, so you're in pretty close proximity to potentially infected fecal matter on a regular basis. And since there are no drugs to prevent the virus or to stop it once you have it, you have no choice but to just deal with it. And by deal with it, I mean slowly lose your mind while living in fear that you, too — or worse, your other child/ren — will contract it as well.
The CDC recommends hand washing, disinfecting toys and frequently touched surfaces, and avoiding close contact with people who have HFMD to help prevent infection and spreading. Have you ever tried to stop a 3-year-old from putting their hands in their mouth and then touching things? That's basically all they do, all day. And close contact is essentially a requirement of having small children, so these suggestions are probably more effective at getting a laugh out of parents of toddlers than they are at actually stopping the spread of the virus.
It shouldn't be surprising that in the last three days I've gone through three containers of Clorox disinfecting wipes, two bottles of Purell hand sanitizer, and an entire jug of Mrs. Meyers hand soap refill. I've done approximately 17 loads of laundry and spent roughly five hours cleaning every surface of my house in an attempt to contain the virus. I probably would have become even more obsessive with my disinfecting routine, but a solid portion of each day also had to be spent keeping my 6-month-old as far away from my infected 3-year-old as possible.
But of course all these efforts may prove futile, because our son was probably contagious before we even knew he had the disease and he'll still be contagious after his mouth blisters have cleared up and he's back in preschool. According to the CDC, people that are infected can be contagious for weeks after symptoms go away. And worse, you can be infected and possibly not even know it since "some people, especially adults, may not develop any symptoms, but they can still spread the viruses to others." So basically, you're screwed even if you sealed off your child's bedroom and locked them in there for a week without contact.
And if you, like me, were finding solace in the notion that once your child gets HFMD, they'll develop immunity to any further infections, think again. Different viruses can cause HFMD, so if your kid initially got it by way of the common coxsackievirus A16, you could be in for round two of sterilizing all the things if enterovirus 71 or coxsackievirus A6 show up at preschool.
I can't be sure just yet that my crazy-making efforts to prevent HFMD from spreading to myself and the two other members of my household have been effective, but there is hope that this unpleasant childhood disease will one day be wiped out like chickenpox. Research is being done on a vaccine approved in China, where there were more than 9 million cases of HFMD between 2008 and 2013.
So while we wait for the vaccine to make its way stateside, at least all parents of toddlers can come together and commiserate. And wash our hands.