Skip to main content

My friend, Coxsackievirus

Everybody in the house is currently asleep. They're all either in fever or rash mode. Well, all but the little girl who we can't quite figure out. The Mama is the last of us to come down with it yesterday evening complete with chills and shivering and being knocked out nearly-unconscious for hours at a time.

Me? I'm at the rash stage. It's no picnic either. My son is there with me as well and we took turns tonight trying to soak our feet in cool tubs of water to ease the weird itchy/prickly feeling. We're all a little more irritable than normal existing in a place that isn't quite ourselves while we take turns passed out with heat radiating off our heads. I'd like to thank my children for everything they've brought to my life...except this.

If it sounds like a rare tropical disease, it's not. It's Coxsackievirus! The name is ridiculous, but it's from the same lovely enterovirus family that gives us polio, echovirus, aseptic meningitis, and infection of the heart, lungs, pancreas, liver. This germ is no joke. Of course, the Coxsackie A that causes Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFM) is no brain-eating bacteria that kills 97% of those infected. It's a fairly routine, childhood illness...but let's also not forget that it does kill in its Asian form for reasons I'll get into later. Let's also not forget that the handful of once-common childhood illnesses we love to dismiss and take lightly (and not get vaccinated for when available--though never this family!) like measles, mumps, and chicken pox were also in the routine-but-deadly category.

Kids are in the "tricky" demographic thanks to their immune systems. They're both weak and pliable. It's easier for diseases to pick off young children who don't have the built up defenses of adults. But, on the other hand, some diseases go better in children for the same reason. Things run their course and then you move on with new immunity for life. That's pretty much the tale here.

My son came down during our visit with grandpa last week. He was quiet and distant on the way downtown, not himself, grumpy, not hungry, then lethargic and sleepy on the train home to the point of nearly passing out and burning up with fever. We tucked him in, he slept for 15 hours or so and woke up hungry and ready to play. A little later, he got an itchy rash on hands and feet and didn't complain about much else. My daughter, 2 days later, came down with a 101 fever after taking an afternoon nap and pretty much camped out on the couch until morning. She popped up and to this day has no rash and no other complaints.

My experience was less "pleasant." After a birthday movie/party for a friend on Saturday afternoon, I came home feeling tired but had a good day. Around 3pm, I was overcome with generic, nonspecific illness. My head pounded, my fever matched at 101, and I climbed in bed with little ceremony hoping to sleep it off like the kids did.

Instead, I woke up intermittently cold and sweating with chills and occasional waves of nausea. The sleep, early on, was blissfully easy. The first 24 hours I mostly spent waking up to roll over and find a comfortable position before drifting back to sleep. But Sunday afternoon the sleep was getting more difficult despite not feeling "better." My fever dropped, but the lack of appetite stayed along with the general discomfort. That's when the congestion and sore throat came. The sore throat was one of the worst I can remember having in my life and stuck around most of Day 2. There are also mouth sores at this point...for me, not that bad and just mildly annoying in the grand scheme. At this point, showers still felt good at least. That would change.

You can read about the basics of HFM on a medical website. I won't regurgitate the info here. It's the stuff they don't tell you about that is fascinating me. Or the stuff they mention but don't emphasize. Like that some lucky bastards can have this disease as a carrier and it doesn't make them sick. Or that there are multiple strains out there each with slightly different versions. Anyway, yesterday afternoon I started getting the strangest feeling in my hands and arms. Like when they fall asleep and they get pins and needles. Tiny little prickles all over my skin despite nothing touching them. (It's called paresthesia and another little virus you may know, varicella, causes it when you get shingles or herpes.) I found my first experience with it creepy-yet-awesome in a science-y kind of way. It's a virus and there's no "curing" it so just enjoy the ride and hope you don't die. And I have a built-in case study population here in my home!

Eventually, the tingling sensation gives birth to hundreds of tiny red dots on your feet, hands, ankles, nose, that...well, my son and I have been conversing to find the right word today. They itch? But not really. They hurt? But not really. It's death by a thousand little stings. They hurt and need pressure to relieve the twitchy feeling. It's actually easier to describe why we itch than to describe the feeling from HFM. Pain and itching are two opposite reflexes to nervous system inputs. Pain makes you recoil while itch makes you...want to scratch. They use the same basic path and your body is easy to confuse. This particular sensation is just in between pain and itching on the "brain electricity" range. In any case, things head more over to the pain side eventually because the little f-ers turn into fluid filled blisters (which will eventually be reabsorbed without scars) that hurt like hell when you put your hands in hot water, shower, walk, or hold a door knob. Ok, ok, it's not that bad. It's actually a lot better than the early stages and I'd take it without second thought. But it's just limiting and frustrating enough that I'm ready to be over this now. The rash goes away in a week...but, oh, your toenails and fingernails may fall off and grow back, too.

So, about that nasty version that kills scores of people in Asia every year? It's the 2nd most common version and called enterovirus 71 (A16 is the most common.) Every so often in that stage of the illness where I had the horrible fever, chills, and urge to vomit (though I didn't!), instead of just getting the shakes somebody's body completely fails to regulate itself. Or your brain or heart may swell or become infected. And you eventually die. From this bastard of a crap childhood disease nobody had heard of until 1957. And it's not even that fatal. But it's all entirely predictable. And my kid probably got it from the playground from sticking his hand in some very tainted splash pad diaper water and then didn't wash his hands and picked his nose and...the human body and associated medicine is amazing.

There you have it. My sad, gross, entirely wondeful tale of what it's like to get Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease as a grown adult. Pretty miserable and I don't recommend. Oh, yeah, and please don't share utensils. Wash your hands. Disinfect those surfaces. Unless you want this as a pet: