Can your devices make you sick? Probably not, experts say

THE WASHINGTON POST – Our cellphones and laptops go everywhere with us – on the subway, to the grocery store, to work, even to the bathroom. Because touching shared surfaces is a surefire way to encounter a variety of microbes, how worried should you be about getting sick from your phone or laptop?

No more worried than you would be about getting sick from touching your other personal objects, said microbiologist and professor at the University of California at Davis Jonathan Eisen. An object such as a subway handrail or computer keyboard can harbour microbes including pathogens – infectious organisms that cause disease – but those pathogens can make you sick only in the right environment and with the right transmission method.

If you’re the only person using your laptop and phone, and you use them in a normal, everyday environment such as your house or workplace, and you wash your hands and clean your devices regularly, you probably don’t need to be concerned; you’re basically sharing microbes with yourself, he said.

The risk increases when you’re actively transferring harmful microbes into your body or coming into contact with other people.

For example, if you’re using a recipe on your computer and going back and forth between your keyboard and handling raw meat. In this case, you could be transferring a harmful microbe, such as E coli or salmonella, onto the keyboard. In that case, it’s a good idea to wipe your keyboard down and wash your hands.

An object such as a computer keyboard can harbour microbes including pathogens – infectious organisms that cause disease – but those pathogens can make you sick only in the right environment and with the right transmission method. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

If someone sneezes on your phone and you touch it and then your mouth, you could get sick, but only because you touched your mouth.

Using a keyboard in a public library or scrolling through your phone on the subway with the same hand you used to touch the railing would be riskier, because you’re exposing yourself to other people’s microbes, Eisen said.

If you’re using your phone in a subway car, “it’s going to pick up a few microbes from the environment”. Somebody on the car might be sick, and “you don’t really necessarily want to sample all the microbes from everybody who has been in that subway car.”

But haven’t we been told that our phones are dirtier than a toilet seat? Maybe, but many studies that measure the presence of microbes on our devices (“swab tests”) fail to provide context for consumers, Eisen said.

“Maybe it tells you something about how recently something was cleaned or how much food there is for the microbes in that particular environment, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the health risk.”

Both helpful and harmful microbes exist everywhere, and trying to eliminate all microbes from an environment isn’t possible; you’d have to live in a bubble, he said. “This is not about eliminating risk, it’s about reducing risk,” Eisen added.

It’s more useful to consider the environment you’re in and how the microbes are transmitted.