Can Your iPhone, Droid or Touchscreen Device Transmit the Flu?

According to British researchers, mobile phones harbor 18 times more bacteria than a flush handle in a typical men’s restroom.

And Stanford University research suggests that the risks of transmitting pathogens from glass surfaces to a person’s skin are relatively high. Especially considering that 30 percent of the virus or germ will get on your fingertip when you touch the infected screen.

Since we were little, our mothers admonished us to wash our hands and cover our mouths when we sneezed – pretty good advice in this germy world; however, we received that guidance before anyone had ever heard of a touchscreen device.

But just how are infectious diseases passed from person to person?

People with upper respiratory infections sneeze and cough, blow and snort – spreading germs all over the place. These germs can live on surfaces, sometimes for hours or even days, just waiting for someone to touch them and rub their nose. The fancy word for this is autoinoculation, meaning you gave yourself the disease.

Washing your hands before eating is a good start, but I would take it a step further and wash your hands before you touch your face – always.

What about that smartphone on your hip – the one with the touchscreen?

If you are like me, you pick it up whenever it rings and put it to your mouth. I can almost hear my mom saying, “You don’t know where that cell phone has been!” You also pass it around freely to share the latest music, video or photo.

But when is the last time you disinfected your phone? Do you even think of it as an object capable of transmitting respiratory germs? How would we even go about doing germ warfare with your smartphone?

Clearly, boiling your phone is a really bad idea. I have personally tried the immersion technique – in a lake and in a toilet (two different phones … I’m not stupid), with identical results. In the medical world, we autoclave instruments to make them sterile, a kind of a steam pressure cooking. I haven’t yet tested that method, but I expect it would be a variation on the drowned phone phenomena.

Operating rooms use ethylene chloride gas sterilization to kill germs on sensitive electronic equipment. This would probably work well on the average smartphone, but it is a rather expensive and cumbersome technology for personal cell phone cleaning. Maybe this is a business opportunity for someone: set up ethylene chloride sterilizing equipment in a truck and sterilize cell phones for five bucks a piece. Franchise anyone?

But let’s be practical.

We can be a little bit low tech here and still get most of the bad germs off the touchscreen. There are a number of germicidal wipes available at drug or grocery stores. You can even grab one when you get your grocery cart. Take one that is moist, not dripping wet, and wipe off the screen of your touchscreen device periodically. It’s as easy as that.

Most wintertime respiratory infections are the result of us touching germy surfaces and then touching our face. The germy surface can be the counter, the grocery store cart or even your cell phone. Get in the habit of washing your hands before you touch your face, and give your cell phone the occasional swipe.

Stay well,

Dr B.

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