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January 18, 2013

Cold carriers: Cellphones can harbor germs, but are tricky to clean

JOPLIN, Mo. — As the flu grows to an epidemic, health professionals caution people to drink fluids, take plenty of vitamin C and keep nearby surfaces clean. Whether it's a flip-phone surface or a Microsoft Surface, electronics can harbor the same flu-causing microbes as doorknobs, counters, water fountains and desks.

But cleaning pathogens off those devices, especially the touch-sensitive screens of iPhones, Droid-powered devices and the like, can be tricky.

Manufacturers generally advocate the use of mild soap and water to clean a device, specifically warning against strong detergents and chemicals. But the perfect cleaning solution may already be on your desk or in your purse, said Guy Voltz, owner of Cell Phone Medics: Hand sanitizer.

"That's the best way to do it," Voltz said. "Any hand sanitizer will work. Just apply a light amount to a tissue or microfiber cloth."

Voltz said that anything with alcohol or isopropyl will kill cold-causing germs. The trick is to use the stuff sparingly and simply.

Don't smear the stuff directly on the device -- the substance shouldn't get stuck in cracks and crevices. Apply it to a microfiber cloth or facial tissue, then use that to clean the device. Voltz also recommends a cleaning once a day during flu season.

"Especially among school kids," Voltz said. "Other kids touch it, and they may be sneezing or sick. Why not do it daily? It only takes a second."

The cleaning procedure is simple enough that kids can clean their own cellphones, Voltz said. The same procedure can apply to tablet PCs and laptops.

Contagious cells?

There's not much research into exactly how effective a vector cellphones are for transmitting disease. Doctors say that person-to-person contact and dirty hands are the most common ways that the flu and colds spread.

But the devices are in close contact with the hands and face, which means that a handshake and a phone call could put a flu bug next to one's face relatively easily.

Chuck Gerba, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, has discovered that cellphones can host microbes for the flu, Norovirus and MRSA, according to a report from Scripps Howard News Service. He said the real threat comes when others make contact with it, giving the opportunity for a germ to jump.

And even though things don't survive long on the glass screen, the device's other surfaces and crevices can be more inhabitable, Voltz said.

And he's seen teens share cellphones more often than adults. That means killing those bugs requires something that has alcohol, or some form of it. But not much is needed, Voltz said.

"It's not necessary to have the expenditure of a high-end cleaner," Voltz said. "I wouldn't say to look for a high content of alcohol, either."

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