Don't Share That Clarinet

Bacteria can linger on woodwind instruments for days.

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It pays to blow your own horn—or clarinet.

Musical instruments can harbor disease-causing microbes deposited in saliva, suggesting that shared use of instruments in schools risks spreading infections, scientists report in an upcoming International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Stuart Levy, a microbiologist at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, teamed with colleague Bonnie Marshall to test 20 recently played instruments for bacteria routinely found in the mouth. They found that clarinets and saxophones carried such microbes for up to three days—longer than flutes or trumpets did.

In another experiment, Levy and Marshall applied streptococcus, staphylococcus and other infectious, disease-causing bacteria to reeds used in woodwind instruments. The staph and strep microbes lingered on the reeds for several days. Other microbes tended to last one to two days, except for deactivated tuberculosis, which survived roughly two weeks.

When the scientists used an air compressor to force saliva tainted with bacteria into clarinets, some microbes again lasted for a few days. Staph bacteria lasted up to five days when a clarinet was stored in a case.

Reeds, which generate sound in clarinets, saxophones and most other woodwinds (but not flutes), appear to be the main culprits. Most reeds are made from the giant cane plant. Made of organic material, they harbor moisture and microbes better than metal surfaces of the instruments, Levy says.

The findings support previous research showing bacteria and viruses can persist on common exposed surfaces, says pediatrician Owen Hendley of the University of Virginia School of Medicine (SN: 10/14/06, p. 254). Still, the new findings don’t go so far as to establish person-to-person transmission of the microbes via shared instruments, he says. A common cold virus, for example, would need to find its way into the player’s nasal passages or past the throat into deeper airways to infect a new host. Further tests are required to demonstrate whether such a scenario is possible.

Other research suggests that the best way to minimize microbial spread in a school is a vigorous hand-washing policy, Hendley says.

Levy says the new findings indicate that musical instruments, especially those with reeds, should be cleaned immediately after use to minimize risk.

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