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Home » Resources » Health » Keep It Clean: Don’t Risk Disease by Not Cleaning Your Wind Instrument

Keep It Clean: Don’t Risk Disease by Not Cleaning Your Wind Instrument


Routine and thorough cleaning of your wind instrument isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, it could be a matter of life or death. According to an article published in the journal General Dentistry many woodwind and brass instruments are heavily contaminated with bacteria and fungi. Every time an infected instrument is played, contaminants enter the lungs. If they do not cause an infection, they will likely cause a reaction to the immune system that results in inflammation of the respiratory system, and eventually, hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Researchers, led by Tom Glass, professor of forensic sciences, pathology, and dental medicine at Oklahoma State University, tested 117 sites on 13 high school wind instruments. “We found the instruments heavily, heavily contaminated with molds, yeasts, and bacteria, all of which have the potential to cause disease,” Glass reports. Six of the instruments had been played within a week of testing and seven hadn’t been used for a month. In total, they contained 442 bacteria, among them 58 molds and 19 yeasts, many of which are capable of producing local infections in the mouth, gastrointestinal tract, or respiratory tract; allergic reactions; and skin infections.

But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a problem that only affects instruments played by young people, who are likely more careless about cleanliness. There have been many well-documented cases of instrument-caused illness in adults in the past few years.

The journal Chest reported on a 67-year-old saxophone player diagnosed with hypersensitivity pulmonitis after complaining of a persistent cough and shortness of breath. The cause was a mouthpiece contaminated with fungus. More recently, the same journal reported on a 48-year-old recreational saxophone player with lung disease. The molds ulocladium botrytis and phoma sp were discovered in his saxophone. 

Last Fall, English bagpiper John Shone suffered a near fatal infection caused by fungus growing in his bagpipes. “Failing to clean my pipes led to me becoming critically ill,” he reported in Piping Times. Shone, of Wiltshire, England, who has been playing since childhood, was hospitalized twice. Doctors were stumped until they learned he was a bagpiper. They tested his instrument and discovered deadly fungi, including rhodotorula and fusarium, which typically kill half the people they infect. 

AFM Local 400 (Hartford, CN) member and trombone player Scott Bean suffered from asthma for 15 years, until he noticed that, when he was away from his instrument, his symptoms improved. “I had a horrible barking cough—especially when I played trombone,” he explained in a National Public Radio interview. 

When doctors at the University of Connecticut, where Bean was teaching at the time, took a culture from inside his trombone, they found the mold fusarium, as well as a type of bacteria called mycobacterium. Bean, who admits he was once lax about cleaning his instrument, is now diligent about cleaning. “I use a rod with a cloth and I use alcohol—rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol,” he says. 

All wind instruments should, at the minimum, be swabbed on the inside after each use. In most cases, mouthpieces can be safely washed in warm water and dish soap. Brass instruments should be disassembled and thoroughly cleaned according to manufacturer suggestions every couple months, depending on use.