Season of illnesses: Hand, foot and mouth disease returns to campus

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The Health and Wellness Center released a health advisory on Oct. 31, warning students of hand, foot and mouth disease on campus. 

There have been a small number of cases of hand, foot and mouth disease present among the Lehigh community, Dr. Sarah Stevens, staff physician at the Health and Wellness Center, said in an email. 

“At this point, as far as the Health and Wellness Center is aware, this appears to be limited,” Stevens said in an email.

The advisory stated the infection commonly begins with symptoms such as a fever, sore throat, malaise or a lack of hunger. Painful sores in the mouth and a non-itchy rash may develop one to two days after the first appearance of symptoms. 

Hand, foot and mouth disease is most contagious in its first week, and is most commonly spread through direct personal contact, infected air, contact with contaminated objects and surfaces, and exposure to feces from the unwashed hands of an infected person.  

Outbreaks can spread most quickly and frequently where individuals gather and come into close contact with each other. 

“By nature, college and university students have many daily interactions with many people throughout the day, evening and night—they live in fairly close quarters, dine in crowded spaces, attend classes in groups and have many other academic and social interactions—all of which are potential opportunities for the spread of respiratory and other infections,” Stevens said in an email.

Justin Fischetti, ‘22, caught hand, foot and mouth disease during last year’s widespread outbreak. 

“I’m usually somebody who doesn’t get sick,” Fischetti said. “I only got sick twice in all of high school, but then, all of a sudden, I come to Lehigh, and I get hit by this terrible hand, foot and mouth disease in my first month here.”

This is not the first time Lehigh’s community has seen cases of hand, foot and mouth disease. 

In 2018, there were reportedly 116 infected students between Sept. 3, and Oct. 12, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

“Last year, my two neighbors had hand, foot and mouth disease,” Michael Lazzaro, ‘22, said. “You really have to make a conscious effort to be clean and to avoid contact with anyone who has it—basically quarantining yourself from people who do.”

Hand, foot and mouth disease is characterized as a self-limited illness, meaning that it resolves without any critical medical complications, Stevens said in an email.

As of now, there is no specific treatment for hand, foot and mouth disease. 

However, there may be cases in which the blisters can become secondarily infected, which requires treatment with topical antibiotic creams.  

To lower the risk of being infected by hand, foot and mouth disease and developing the cold or flu, Stevens recommends students stay home if sick in order to prevent the spread of illnesses. Students should avoid the sharing of water bottles, utensils or food, and they should cough into the inside part of the elbow. Finally, students should wash their hands carefully with soap and water. 

The Coxsackie virus that leads to the majority of cases of hand, foot and mouth disease—along with Adenovirus, Norovirus and some other viruses—are resistant to alcohol-based hand sanitizers and many disinfectants, making it important to handwash with soap and water.

In addition to the recommendations included in the health advisory on hand, foot and mouth disease, the Health and Wellness Center and environmental services are using cleaning products that are known to be effective against Coxsackie virus.

Although it won’t protect against hand, foot and mouth disease, with the flu season here, getting the flu shot annually is additionally recommended. 

“I didn’t get my flu shot yet because I feel like every year when I get a flu shot, I get the flu,” said Grace Fahrney, ‘22. “I know it’s just a superstition, but I believe in it.”

The university has seen record breaking flu vaccination numbers in its on-campus efforts this fall. 

The Health and Wellness Center in Johnson Hall is open on Monday through Thursday from 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Friday from 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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