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Smartphones could spread the flu

28th January 2013

Public health officials recommend hand-washing, flu vaccines and avoiding contact with people who are sick as prevention measures for influenza, but recently smartphones have come under the spotlight as possible harbours for pathogens.

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Vigorous cleaning of surfaces that are frequently touched are also among the recommendations made by doctors and other health experts, along with staying home if you fall ill so as to avoid giving the virus to others.

Smartphones, for various reasons, rarely get washed or thoroughly cleaned, and they are picked up and used throughout the day, as well as coming into contact with the face.

However, strong household cleaners or disinfectants can damage the touch screen components, and many manufacturers warn that they should not be used.

Leakage of alcohol, ammonia or detergents could also penetrate the cover of the phone, and damage in the inner components as well.

Smartphones follow their owners everywhere; are put down, picked up again, even in the bathroom, where the likelihood of infection is higher.

Cleaning them may be a sensible option, because hands are the biggest vectors of the influenza virus, and clean hands could come into contact with a contaminated phone, cancelling out the benefits of hand-washing.

Studies show that the average person touches their face as much as 16 times in the course of a single hour, and mouth, nose and eyes are all potential entry points for influenza and colds into the body.

Smartphones may touch a person's mouth during a phone call, and some people lend or borrow others' phones, spreading germs from infected users, as the influenza virus can survive for up to eight hours on a surface.

Hands are the most likely carriers of disease, including influenza, especially in offices with lots of shared handles and doorknobs, desks and computer keyboards.

The chief medical officer at US telecoms giant AT and T issued a statement recently warning people that smartphones could easily spread influenza, which has now spread to 50 US states in the worst flu season since the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

In the statement, Geeta Nayyar urged people to disinfect their cell phones regularly or use hands-free headsets where possible. She also called on people not to use their phones in toilets.

The dangers of infection are not limited to influenza, as the drug-resistant superbug MRSA can survive on surfaces for up to 8-9 days, studies have shown.

Phones that are shared should be disinfected, possibly with a product that is specifically designed for use on electronic gadgets.

Cleaning agents like ammonia, alcohol and detergents can damage the phone, and most manufacturers instruct phone owners to use just a clean, damp cloth, possibly dipped in soapy water.

According to Apple, the iPhone should never be cleaned with aerosol sprays, alcohol or ammonia, but with a "soft slightly damp lint free cloth". However, such a clean-up is unlikely to disinfect the device.

It is hard to work out how likely smartphones are to spread disease, because the probability of infection depends on how long the pathogens have been on a surface. The likelihood of infection is strongest within the first 15-20 minutes of a virus or bacterium landing on a surface, and declines over 1-3 hours.

It is still unclear exactly what role smartphones play in the spread of infectious diseases like the flu, and experts say that people should still focus on keeping their hands clean.

 

 

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