Can dirty smartphones make you sick?
When Katie Kuntzman began breaking out on one side of her face two years ago, the New Canaan teen didn't know what was going on. So Kuntzman, now 19, did the sensible thing and saw a dermatologist.
The answers she got from the doctor were a bit surprising.
"They told me that part of the reason I was breaking out was because of my cellphone," she said.
The side she broke out on was the same side to which she pressed her electronic device while she talked. Kuntzman's doctor told her that touching her phone, whether texting, dialing a number or surfing the Web, spread oil to the phone, which, in turn, spread to her face.
"I started cleaning my phone with rubbing alcohol after that," Kuntzman said.
That's a smart idea, as oil is one of the more benign substances that can end up on a smartphone. Research has shown time and again how nasty these communication devices can get. Studies say our phones are frequently contaminated with fecal matter and bacteria, including MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant germ that can cause painful skin infections.
Considering all the places we take our smartphones these days -- from the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the pocket -- common sense might have predicted what research has proved.
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Below is a brief history of research showing how gross one's smartphone can be.
In 2011, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine released a study showing that one in six mobile phones in Britain were contaminated with fecal matter. The study attributed the contamination to poor hand washing. Though 95 percent of people surveyed in the study said they washed their hands with soap when possible, 92 percent of phones and 82 percent of hands had bacteria on them.
In 2009, the Annals of Clinical Microbiology published a study showing that when the phones of 200 health care workers were tested for germs, almost 95 percent of them demonstrated evidence of some bacterial contamination. It theorized that the phones could be a source of hospital-acquired infections.
This year, students in an environmental health course at South University, Columbia, S.C., did an experiment where they took samples from 60 student cellphones and tested them for germs. They found that many of the phones were contaminated with MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause painful skin infections.
Concerns about smartphone sickness have gotten to the point where at least one company, New York-based Corning, is developing an antibacterial glass for phones and tablets. The glass -- expected to be released later this year -- would kill almost 100 percent of bacteria on its surface and keep new bacteria from forming, company spokeswoman Elizabeth Dann said. The technology was originally intended for hospitals, she said, but Corning shifted its focus to phones in the wake of all the research showing that they're rife with yucky stuff.
So why are smartphones so dirty?
That's why hand washing is such a high priority at hospitals, he said, along with other sanitary measures.
"All our computer keyboards are cleaned every shift" with bleach wipes, Saul said. He recommended people use the same precautions for their phones.
Saul said he hasn't seen any patients who have gotten ill via a smartphone, but it makes sense given how much gross stuff lurks there.
Dr. Goran Miljkovic, an infectious disease physician in private practice in Stratford, echoed those sentiments. Miljkovic pointed out that many of the germs on a person's cellphone come from them, and it's hard to get sick from your own germs. But given that we take our phones everywhere, catching something from one's phone isn't out of the question.
"It hasn't been pinpointed to an outbreak of infections, but you can theoretically see the potential for that," he said. "I guess using (phones) constantly would expose them to all kinds of different germs and all different kinds of secretions and things."