Medical Files

Our necessary but ‘dirty’ cell phones

If you’re having recurrent bouts of respiratory tract infections, don’t blame it all on the changing weather. A possible source of the bacteria could be something we all can’t seem to live without—our cellular phones.

We’ve written in a previous article that cell phones have been shown in some studies to be dirtier than toilet bowl seats or the bottom of our shoes. This is the reason some hospitals discourage the use of cell phones inside the operating rooms unless absolutely necessary.


Bacteria grown on cell phones include staphylococcus, streptococcus and micrococcal organisms in amounts large enough to potentially make one sick. Aside from colds and coughs, one can also have gastrointestinal tract problems in the form of loose bowel movement, or hard-to-treat acne on the face.

In a study in a hospital in Northern Ireland, they swabbed the cell phones of 53 doctors and 52 members of the nursing staff and of these 105 phones, 96.2 percent had evidence of bacterial growth and 15 phones (14.3 percent) grew bacteria known to cause infection.

Carriers of germs

This means that one out of six or seven cell phones may be carriers of germs that can infect its user. Two of the phones swabbed contained the deadly form of a streptococcal bacteria. What is striking is that the cell phone users in this study were doctors and nurses who are supposed to be more concerned about sanitation and safety precautions to avoid infections.

Similar results have been shown in studies swabbing cell phones of nonhospital workers including newspaper reporters and media men. The same conclusion was arrived at by the researchers that cell phones can be a lot filthier than we think they are. The degree of contamination however was less than in the Ireland study using swabs from cell phones of hospital workers.

Definitely, we would never want our faces nowhere close to a toilet seat, but we unwittingly do something similar to that with our cell phones which we closely press to either of our ears and within a few centimeters of our lips. For some, it’s literally glued to their cheeks for hours on end. Not only is there a risk of infection but also a risk of development of brain tumor associated with prolonged use of cell phones over a period of several years.

Sometime ago, a patient being managed by a colleague was admitted in a Metro Manila hospital thrice in four months—twice for respiratory tract infections and once for infectious diarrhea. The attending physician was at a loss why this apparently healthy individual suddenly became infection-prone. He advised him on cell phone sanitation and the patient has not been readmitted since.

The cell phone can really be a virtual Petri dish where various bacteria can multiply and build invisible colonies which can be potent enough to cause a significant infection when one’s resistance due to a weakened immune system is reduced. We’re advised not to leave our cell phones in places where it can gather bacteria like inside the toilet or on top of laboratory counters where specimens are collected.

Don’t think that what your cell phone has are your own bacteria from your skin or saliva. It has a lot more and the places where it’s kept—pockets or purses—provide just the right temperature, darkness and humidity to make it an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.


Most of the bacteria grown in cell phone swabs are harmless, but a few infection-causing bacteria have been isolated the most scary of which is Staphylococcus aureus which can cause skin boils, pneumonia, meningitis, gastroenteritis and other potentially serious infections.

Take some precautions

Even if we’re using the most expensive or sleek model, cell phones can be filthy, no doubt about that. But who can live these days without a cell phone. So if we can’t do without it, let’s make sure we take some precautions to prevent it from becoming the breeding ground of potentially life-threatening bacteria.

Since our hands are the most frequent source of the germs, we should wash our hands as frequently as possible, especially after using the toilet. Frequent handwashing has been shown to be the most effective preventive measure in human-acquired infections. The use of accessories to enable you to use your cell phone without pressing it to your face may also help prevent germ transmission from a contaminated phone.

We should also swab our cell phones with rubbing alcohol at least twice a week. Personally, I think we should do it even if the cell phone manufacturer says this practice might smudge or even despoil the unit. Given a choice between preserving your precious cell phone or saving yourself from a potentially serious infection that can land you in the hospital, I say we should choose the latter. Or isn’t that choice obvious?

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TAGS: cell phones, health and wellness, respiratory tract infections
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