It’s the beginning of flu season, which also means it’s the beginning of the season for news stories that overly hype one or another possible vector for the virus. Based on recent articles appearing in the New York Daily News, the New Yorker magazine and the Sacramento Bee, touch interface mobile devices such as the iPhone are this year’s flu scare subject de jur. Thankfully, touch screens don’t spread disease any more readily than any other surface.
As we humans move through our environment, we lace everything we contact with the bacteria and viruses that make up our personal ecosystem. We touch door handles, subway railings and keyboards, and we are just as likely to get sick from those as from a phone or iPad, said Stephen Morse, a professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“I don’t think what you can get from these surfaces translates into a health risk,” Morse told TechNewsDaily. “There are a lot of other surfaces that you come in contact with that are contaminated in the same way.”
Doctors have worried about contamination through technology for decades, Morse said, noting that previous generations worried about whether or not one could catch the flu from a public phone. Like those older fears, worries over touch screens spreading infection fail to take into account how inhospitable microbes find plastic surfaces.
When someone uses a touch screen, the oils and flakes of skin they leave behind only provide the barest sustenance for viruses and bacteria, hardly enough to spawn a colony, Morse said. Plus, if you’re using your own phone, the only microbes accumulating on the screen are pathogens your body already harbors, eliminating the risk of new infection.
A small industry of antibacterial iPhone cases and antiviral iPad wipes already cater to users paranoid about their device’s cleanliness. But while cleaning your phone every once in a while makes sense, those products are a waste of money and not nearly as useful as properly washing your hands, Morse said.
“There’s the yuck factor, but in terms of the health dangers, they’re probably not of great concern,” Morse said.