The most un-wonderful time of the year — flu season — is in full swing. And while you're likely doing your best to avoid people who are coughing and sneezing, you might still be exposing yourself to the flu by touching things like your phone. Wait, what? Is catching the flu from your phone even possible? The answer is yes, but there's some good news.
While your phone is one of the filthiest things you touch on the regular, a 2011 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that the live flu virus generally doesn't survive longer than four hours on non-porous surfaces like smartphones. However, it can survive nine hours on surfaces like stainless steel.
"[Flu] virus deposited onto the touched environment is likely to survive up to a few hours, though rarely more than nine hours, on the vast majority of surfaces," the study noted. "Metallic and non-metallic non-porous materials pose the greatest risk and should be targeted for frequent cleaning if situated in close proximity to patients infected with influenza virus."
While that's certainly a relief, four-to-nine hours is plenty of time to catch the flu from your phone. Maybe Linda from HR comes over to your desk to chat about your missing TPS reports and coughs, or even just breathes, six feet away from phone. If Linda has the flu, and you touch your phone within four hours (and who are we kidding, of course you're going to) and then touch your face, you could potentially get the flu too, especially if you haven't had your flu shot.
"You can, in fact, contract the flu from lending your phone to someone, as the virus can live on the surface for a number of hours," Dr. Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York City-based internist and gastroenterologist and adjunct professor at Touro College, tells Bustle. "Try to minimize the amount of time you spend touching your phone or tablet and avoiding touching your face or eyes."
In addition, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service's National Institute on Aging noted on its website that whether it's from pathogens in the air, contact with a sick person, or touching hard surfaces, there are plenty of ways to get the flu you might not be aware of. For example, the site explains, say your friend Ellen is sick and her friend Jack takes care of her. Without proper precautions, Jack will likely get sick too, and whomever takes care of Jack will go down next. It's kind of like a game of Dominoes.
Personally, I wipe my phone down any time I've been out in public, I never let anyone touch my phone, and I never touch anyone else's phone. I also tend to think of my phone like a third hand, which means I clean it the same way I wash my hands — vigorously and often. Dr. Sonpal says this is a good idea.
"Constantly wash your hands, especially if you have been around people with the flu," he recommends. "If you want to take an extra precaution, you can disinfect your screen with an antibacterial wipe."
In addition to using wipes to clean your phone, you can also use a phone sanitizer like PhoneSoap that cleans it by using germicidal UVC lights to kill viruses and bacteria. You might also want to go ahead and get into a routine of wiping your desk, keyboard, and phone down every few hours during flu season. While this might sound like overkill, it's actually not.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website that people who have the flu are contagious one day before they develop symptoms and for five-to-seven days after becoming sick. "Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms," the CDC also noted. "During this time, those people may still spread the virus to others."
Even then, you know that most people with symptoms don't want to miss a week of work, and they're going to drag their contagious butts into the office because Linda wants those TPS reports yesterday. I work from home, but my office-dwelling friends text me daily to complain that so-and-so is sick and came to work anyway and is hacking and sneezing all over everything.
Because my roommate works in an office and brought the flu home from work last year, we both got a flu shot this year. Seriously, when it comes to the flu, it seems like there is danger at every turn. But all is not lost my friendlies! Get into the habit of cleaning your phone every few hours and wash your hands every time you touch a common surface. With a flu shot and a solid cleaning regimen, you're gonna get through flu season just fine.
Dr. Niket Sonpal, a NewYork City-based internist, gastroenterologist, and faculty member Touro College of Medicine
Greatorex JS, Digard P, Curran MD, Moynihan R, Wensley H, Wreghitt T, et al. (2011) Survival of Influenza A(H1N1) on Materials Found in Households: Implications for Infection Control. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27932. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027932