A Note on Health: Improving the Sanitation of Musical Instruments

As a musician myself, playing both the clarinet and the piano, it was interesting for me to read case studies of deadly diseases that were contracted by musicians who did not clean their instruments.  In all honesty, I hardly ever clean my clarinet even though I play it fairly regularly.  There has been a small amount of cases where musicians who play their instruments regularly have fallen ill from Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, a respiratory disease which has led to lung problems and even death.  This does not occur very often, perhaps because most professional or regular musicians keep a schedule of cleaning their instruments.  I think that this topic is important and also not well known, particularly among younger musicians in middle and high school bands.  It is particularly important to raise awareness of the dangers of not cleaning musical instruments because it could help prevent future cases of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis.

How are instruments susceptible to mold growth?

Reed instruments, unlike brass instruments, require pieces of thin wood to be placed on the mouthpiece in order for the instrument to make any sound.  The sound is made by wetting the reed and then blowing through the mouthpiece, making the sounds somewhat more “wooden” than the sounds of brass instruments and flutes.  Reed instruments include clarinets, saxophones, and the bagpipes.  Seeing as reeds are kept moist for playing, they are going to remain moist after playing and must be placed in a case separate of the instrument.  Reeds are susceptible to growths of mold and fungi, especially if they are kept on the instrument.  Inside the instrument, the environment is wet, dark, and warm; perfect conditions for the growth of molds and fungi.  When musicians breathe in the molds growing inside of their instruments, it leads to them contracting illnesses like Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis and even more serious lung problems.  There have not been many recorded cases of diseases such as these, but they can be fatal.

What are the effects of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis?

Although cases of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis are not common, the cases on record have ended satisfactorily for some patients but not for others.  Some cases have ended where the patient ultimately recovered, but one case ended where the patient died of prolonged exposure.  The patient that died was an elderly bagpipes player who had been inhaling the molds and fungi growing inside of his bagpipes for years (Chaudhuri, Nazia; Jayne Holme, et al. 2016).  This case was the first recorded case of the disease and the only case recorded where the patient died.  In other cases, the patient was given medications along with the complete disinfection of his/her instrument and the Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis symptoms went away within a couple of weeks.

The symptoms of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis have also been called saxophone lung.  This was true of two cases involving saxophone players.  In one of the cases, the saxophone player was middle-aged and had been plagued with respiratory problems for five months (Dalphin, Jean-Charles, Paul De Vuyst, et al. 2010).  The investigation into his health commenced like that of the bagpipes player; doctors could not find anything wrong until they examined his saxophone.  After disinfecting the saxophone and placing the man on medication, his health improved (Dalphin, Jean-Charles, Paul De Vuyst, et al. 2010).  The second case involving a saxophone player occurred in the same way, though the patient was closer to the age of the bagpipes player.  Molds were found in his saxophone.  After it was disinfected and the man was placed on medications, his health improved (Lodha, Suresh and Om P. Sharma, 1988).  All of these cases represent the same disease occurring in different patients because of their instruments.  The fact that this has happened more than once shows that the disease can be a problem.

Why we need to raise awareness

Although these cases do not occur often, they are concerning because, as with the case of the elderly bagpipes player, they can be life-threatening.  Another concern is that when cases like these do occur, they are not publicized.  Regular or professional musicians could spend their whole lives unknowingly putting themselves at risk and never hearing about the potential dangers that could be caused.  Scientists suggest that new causes of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis could actually arise in the coming years, making it all the more necessary why musicians must clean their instruments regularly (Cormier, Yvon, 2010).  Personally, I spent seven years in middle and high school playing the clarinet almost daily and never knew of the potential for disease.  None of the cases on record have involved a child who played the instrument, but that does not mean that it is not possible.  Middle and high school instrument players could, in a way, be at even more of a risk because their environment is much more unclean than that of regular or professional musicians.  Raising awareness now could help much more in the long term.  Future cases could be prevented and the overall possibility of disease could be drastically lowered.





Works Cited:


Cormier, Yvon. 2010. “Wind Instruments Lung: A Foul Note.” Chest Journal. 138(3): 467-468 2010. Available from: http://www.journal.publications.chestnet.org/article.aspx?articleid=1045040&issueno=3&rss=1

Dalphin, Jean-Charles; Paul De Vuyst; Amaryllis Haccuria; Flora Metzger; Nicole Nolard; Gabriel Reboux. 2010. “Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis Due to Molds in a Saxophone Player.” Chest Journal. 138(3): 724-726 (2010). Available from: http://www.journal.publications.chestnet.org/article.aspx?articleid=1044955&issueno=3&rss=1

Lodha, Suresh and Om P. Sharma. “Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis in a Saxophone Player.” 1988. Chest Journal. Available from: http://www.journal.publications.chestnet.org/data/Journals/CHEST/21578/1322.pdf