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Your kid's crusty clarinet may be harboring germs

Used woodwind or brass instruments can house some serious germs. How often does your kid clean his or hers?
Used woodwind or brass instruments can house some serious germs. How often does your kid clean his or hers?

Sour notes may not be the only thing emanating from your child’s squeaky clarinet or honking trombone, according to a new study just published in General Dentistry. Used woodwinds and brass instruments are also contaminated with enough bacteria and fungi to bring on everything from food poisoning to brain abscesses.

Researchers took cultures from 13 high school band instruments, all from a small, rural town in northeastern Oklahoma, explains lead author Dr. Tom Glass, professor of forensic sciences, pathology and dental medicine and adjunct professor of microbiology at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa.

“We swabbed the instruments from the mouthpiece end all the way to the bell and we also collected what was expelled from the bell and looked at the instrument cases,” he says. “And we were absolutely shocked by the results.”

A total of 442 different bacteria were taken from 117 different sites on the instruments (which consisted of two clarinets, two oboes, two saxophones, two mellophones, two trombones, two trumpets, and one cornet).

Many of the bacteria were species of Staphylococcus,which can cause staph infections. In addition, 58 molds and 19 yeasts were identified.

“We found that the instrument was basically acting as a reservoir for these germs and had the potential to infect the individual who was playing it,” he says. “What was also disturbing is that some of the instruments hadn’t been played for several months but they had the same group of germs. These germs have a very long shelf life.”

Some of the most commonly found bacteria in the study included Brevibacterium (found in 11 instruments) which can cause corneal infections, food poisoning and endophthalmitis (an inflammation of the internal coats of the eye which can cause loss of vision). Kocuria varians, which causes brain abscess (among other things), was found in nine of the swabbed instruments.

“There are good germs and bad germs, but many of these have the potential to be bad,” says Glass, who for the last 30 years has researched disease-producing germs lurking in common objects such as toothbrushes, dentures, athletic mouth guards and pacifiers. “They have the potential to produce infectious diseases as well as respiratory diseases such as asthma.”

Glass says without proper cleaning, many used musical instruments are basically carriers, passing germs from one person to the next. Unfortunately, the kids who play these borrowed instruments are especially vulnerable, because, he says, “their immune systems aren’t as well-developed as adults.”

“The instruments are sort of like Typhoid Mary,” he says. “They get passed along to one after the other. Our intent is not to prevent people from playing band instruments, but to factor this into the whole perspective of the disease process.  People need to ask the question, ‘Do you play a band instrument?’ ‘How long has it been since you’ve cleaned your band instrument?’”

The good news? Breaking down the instrument and wiping all its surfaces once a week can cut back on the germs. But it only decreases the number of germs to an “acceptable level,” says Glass. To completely eradicate the nasty bugs, the instrument needs to be sterilized in a bath of ethylene oxide.

As for other instruments such as drums, guitars, violins, or accordions, Glass says people don’t have to be concerned (at least not in regard to germs).

“A piano is safer,” he says. “It’s the instruments around your mouth. That’s where you have trouble.”

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