Sharing musical instruments could mean sharing germs

Germs survive for several days in wind instruments including the clarinet, flute, and saxophone, according to a pilot study published online May 11 in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

The researchers, led by Stuart Levy, MD, of Tufts University School of Medicine, urged proper cleaning of these instruments.

"Thousands of children share musical instruments in elementary and high school each year, but there is no established standard for cleaning those instruments," said Dr. Levy in a statement about the research. "We found that disease-causing germs survive on commonly shared instruments for one to two days."

The researchers collected samples from 20 clarinets, flutes, and saxophones and found living bacteria as well as mold or yeast on all instruments. Using a pump and an aerosol generator, they simulated playing and applied Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus, and a deactivated strain of tuberculosis bacteria to a clarinet.

Culturing bacteria from the clarinet, they found that bacteria survived for hours up to a few days. The deactivated strain of tuberculosis bacteria survived for up to 13 days.

Although the pilot study was not focused on mold or other fungi, the researchers noted that these potentially disease-causing microorganisms also survived on and inside instruments. Wooden reeds and mouthpieces were found to harbor the greatest quantities of bacteria.

To prevent or minimize the transfer and growth of germs on instruments, the researchers suggested that instrumentalists have their own instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds. If the instrument is shared or obtained from a commercial source, to reduce germs, it should be disassembled and then cleaned using alcohol wipes, soap and water, or a commercial disinfectant. Additionally, swab pull-throughs and other drying cloths can be microwaved after use to minimize growth of germs while stored in instrument cases.

"Although hygienic practices increasingly are being encouraged, in part by the swine flu epidemic and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) outbreaks, our results suggest that cleaning shared wind instruments should also be encouraged, especially in schools," concluded Dr. Levy.

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