Cleaning 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. Through the act of merely blowing into an instrument, you are creating the perfect warm, moist environment for germs, mold, bacteria, and microscopic organisms.
Every time an infected instrument is played, contaminants enter the lungs. If they do not cause an infection, they can cause an immune system reaction that results in inflammation of the respiratory system, and eventually, hypersensitivity pneumonitis.
In one study published in The International Journal of Environmental Health Research, Tufts University scientists tested 20 instruments and found that all of them harbored living bacteria, mold, and yeast. Wooden reeds and mouthpieces had the most contamination. While that study was focused on student instruments, there have been many well-documented cases of instrument-caused illness in adults, even professionals.
The journal Chest reported on a 35-year-old trombone player whose 15-year cough went away after he began disinfecting his instrument with rubbing alcohol. The same journal reported on a 48-year-old saxophone player with lung disease. The molds ulocladium botrytis and phoma sp. were discovered in his saxophone.
And there’s the well-known case of English bagpiper John Shone who 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.
One AFM member and trombone player 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 2010 National Public Radio interview.
When doctors at the University of Connecticut, where he 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. He admitted 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.