News: Microbes Are Everywhere—But Those on Your Cell Phone Can Be Dangerous, Especially During Cold & Flu Season

Microbes Are Everywhere—But Those on Your Cell Phone Can Be Dangerous, Especially During Cold & Flu Season

It won't come as a surprise to hear that your cell phone, tablet, and laptop are loaded with bacteria and other organic material. While most of these bacteria are harmless, there are good reasons to reduce the capability of your mobile devices to infect you—or other people.

Humans are home, inside and out, to an enormous number of microorganisms. Some microbes keep us healthy, while others make us sick. For certain germs, like Escherichia coli (E. coli), the difference between help and hurt is a matter of time and place. They're helpful in your intestines, but if ingested, these germs could make you deathly ill.

People serve microbes by giving them a place to live, an easy source of food, and carrying them from place to place with our bodies and our mobile devices. Dangerous bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus can hang out on a dry cell phone for phones, and viruses can survive for a few days or a couple of months.

Whatever you touch—the keyboard, the coffee, your face—it's loaded with microbes. Your immune system is working 24/7 to help defray the consequences of exposure to those that are infectious, and you can help wash off some of that bioload by routinely washing your hands and bathing. Your cell phone, on the other hand, doesn't get that opportunity, and will likely be ruined if you try to run it through the shower. Some smartphones with IP68 ratings, like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and upcoming Galaxy S8, may survive a brief shower every now and then, but you definitely wouldn't want to do this every day.

Here's some basic background:

  • Your cell phone is dirty and crowded: In addition to muck picked up along the way, your cell phone is loaded with bacteria. Yes, your cell phone has more germs on it than a standard office toilet seat, and your tablet has more. It happens.
  • Germs like viruses are happy to hop aboard: It's not just bacteria, viruses colonize your mobile devices, too. In fact, the area around your home button is probably the sketchiest spot in the vicinity for yuck. Studies indicate viral material readily transfers from your hands to the surface of your phone. Of course, clean hands transmit fewer microorganisms.
  • If you work in healthcare, heads-up: Mobile devices used by healthcare workers carry a higher number of troublesome pathogens than non-healthcare workers. As one study noted: "[Healthcare workers'] mobile phones are potential vectors for transferring nosocomial pathogens between [healthcare workers], patients, and the community." Nosocomial refers to a hospital origin, so a nosocomial pathogen would be one picked up in a doctor's office or hospital setting.
  • It's drug-resistant bacteria, too: Drug-resistant pathogens like E. coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are part of the microbial communities that typically inhabit keyboards, cell phones, and other devices.
Numerous clumps of MRSA visible under an scanning electron microscopic. Image by Janice Haney Carr & Jeff Hageman, M.H.S., CDC/Public Health Image Library

Because we spend so much time with our devices, and because so few clean their hands before using them, your cell phone or laptop harbors a copy of the unique pattern of microorganisms that are your own personal micobiome.

To give his students a look at that, Dr. Simon Park, a senior lecturer in molecular biology at the University of Surrey in the UK, has his students imprint their cell phones onto a growing medium to see what lives there. Once cultured, the images reflect the microbes, and often, recent history of the cell phone owner.

Example of cell phone bacteria. More images are available on Park's blog here and here. Image by Dr. Simon Park/Exploring the Invisible

"Each phone tells a story," according to Park, and part of that story is that our cell phones, tablets, and keyboards are life-infested and using us to hitch a ride from here to there. As Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, told Invisiverse:

It appears that mobile devices make germs more mobile than previously. From our observations, a person uses a mobile phone almost 2½ hours per day for one use or another. When you use the phone, you are putting germs on and off the phone all the time you are using it.

From what we have seen, you pick a germ up from one surface (like a tabletop) and then put it on the phone—and then you take the phone home and use it again—picking up the organism off the phone and placing it somewhere else—or you bring your fingers to your mouth.

How to Clean Your Cell Phone & Other Devices

Regular and routine cleaning of electronic devices is important. If your smartphone is carrying a dangerous virus or bacteria, it can make you sick. So can the remote to your television, for that matter. So make it a practice to routinely clean mobile devices that you touch frequently. Here are some tips to minimize your exposure and keep mobile devices reasonably clean:

  • Do not use liquids, sprays, solvents, cleaners, or anything dripping.
  • Use a microfiber cloth. Easy to find and easy to use, a slightly damp (not wet) microfiber cloth goes a long way to reducing microbial colonies on any device. It may seem like a good idea, but don't use a paper towel with your household cleaner, no matter how gentle. Cleaners, even natural ones, are intended to power off soil and germs. Using the wrong cleaner could damage the finish of your device or its touch function. Consider a microfiber cloth as a cell phone accessory, and use it often.
  • Apple recommends unplugging external power sources if needed, which is just common sense. Follow with a disinfectant wipe that does not contain bleach. Wring the wipe out a couple of times before use to ensure you don't get moisture through your computer keys or device touchpad, then wipe again with your microfiber cloth.
  • Samsung recommends cleaning your cell phone regularly, using care not to get moisture in the device.
  • Make your own cleaner with watered-down alcohol and a microfiber cloth.
  • For more tips on cleaning your phone or tablet, check out GadgetHacks.com.

The most important step you can take to keep your devices clean, and your body healthy, is to wash your hands. While washing your hands before you pick up your cell phone sounds extreme, it's not bad advice. In the least, be sure to wipe your cell phone routinely, especially if you pass your phone around a lot, and disinfect on a weekly basis.

Don't make it easy for pathogens to get where they want to go. Just because you can't see them, doesn't mean they aren't there when you put the phone to your face. Do yourself, family, and friends a favor, and use a wipe wherever you swipe.

Cover photo by stevepb/PixaBay

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