Saxophone players & flu season
Saxophone players & flu season

Saxophone players & flu season

Since I have gotten sick from shaking hands with people and then assembling my horn in the past, you could say that I’ve learned from my mistakes. I offer up the following for your consideration.


Unless you live in the southern hemisphere, winter is not even half over. This means that cold and flu season is still in full swing. What virus, cartoon virus, orange spiked virus with face, flu seasondoes this have to do with saxophone players? In a word: everything!

According to public health agencies in Canada, the US, and Europe, the influenza virus is still on the uptick in many places, and responsible for the deaths and hospitalizations of people ranging the life spectrum from infants to seniors. The best way of course to protect yourself from the flu every year is with a vaccination.

Even if the flu shot is only 10 to 30% effective—as has been suggested this year’s might be—it is a fact that if you are exposed to the influenza virus, then your symptoms will not be as severe, and the course of your illness will not be as long as had you not received the vaccine. This is one of the reasons I get my shot every year almost as soon as they come out.

That said, presumably if you’re reading my website’s articles, you are an adult, and can make your own decisions about what’s best for your health. I’m not here to try to convince the anti-vaxxers in the audience of anything, since they seem to think they know stuff scientists don’t.

I am here however, to try to shed some light on stuff saxophone players (actually everyone who plays a woodwind instrument) can do to minimize their chances of getting sick from simply playing their horn. Sound nuts? Let me explain…

virus, cartoon virus, green fuzzy virus with face, flu seasonAccording to the UK’s NHS, the influenza virus can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours—as can certain viruses that transmit colds. As a matter of fact, if you take a look at the NHS page I linked to, you can find out about some of the other bugs you can pick up by doing something as innocuous as pushing a grocery cart; then driving your car; opening your house door; turning on your light switch; and putting your groceries into the fridge.

So how does this relate to playing saxophone?

Let me explain by giving you an example from my life that happened last weekend.

handwashing PSA, viruses and bacteria can live on your hands for hours, what have you touched today,

I am playing Reed 5 in Music Man. Rehearsals are in a town about 30 minutes away, so I often stop and get gas along the way. After filling up my tank I use a hand sanitizer, but I know even the health-care grade one I use is not as effective as hand washing.

Last Saturday night I got to the theatre for our first rehearsal of 2018. We had an especially small turnout because the flu is making the rounds, and half of the orchestra was sick. One of the producer’s was there, and she said that it is making the rounds of the cast members as well.

Before rehearsal started, I went into the washroom; washed my hands thoroughly for 30 seconds; dried my hands with the hot air dryer; and used a few pieces of toilet paper to open the door. When I got back to the rest of my musical colleagues, more had arrived—some of which I had never met before.

As I politely refused to shake hands with the flute player, I explained that I had just washed my hands. The producer looked at me, and I explained that I had to put my mouthpieces and reeds together, and that those then get put in my mouth. The light then came on, and she said: “Oh, of course! I had never thought of that. It makes complete sense.”

Yes, yes it does. I wasn’t trying to throw shade onto the flute player’s personal hygiene habits. He did however, have to touch the handle of the theatre door in order to come in. The simple fact is, I wasn’t willing to risk getting whatever he had on his hand, into my mouth.

virus, cartoon virus, red fuzzy virus with face, flu seasonAlthough I have a neurological condition, I am otherwise quite healthy, and have a very good immune system. (I suspect having been exposed to a great many viruses as a paramedic helped in that regard. 😉 )

That said, in order to protect myself from getting sick while playing sax, I have developed a routine that seems to work fairly well:

  • Once I have loaded my gear into the car, I use Lysol disinfecting wipes to wipe down all the car surfaces that I might touch on the way to the rehearsal/show.
  • Those surfaces include the: steering wheel; door handle; door lock; head light switch; hand brake; turn signals arm; windshield washer arm; radio; climate controls; GPS; mirror controls; traction control; seat heaters; interior lighting; rear-view mirror; as well as both ends of the seat belt.
  • Once I arrive at the place I’m going to play, I try to use the door fitted with an automatic door opener for wheelchair users if at all possible. I push that button with my elbow.
  • I try not to touch anything until I’ve put my reed on my mouthpiece at the venue. (Depending on what I may have had to touch, I will wash my hands before putting my reeds and mouthpiece together.)
  • For general hygiene around the house, we also use the Lysol disinfecting wipes regularly to wipe down the handrails, fridge handles, taps, computer keyboards, remote controls, telephones, light switches, etc, etc.
  • In your practice space, it would be a really good idea to wipe down the handles of your instrument cases as well regularly.
  • I’ve written an article on mouthpiece cleaning in the past, so it might be worth a read if you’ve not read it before.

Am I just suffering from OCD? No, no I’m not. I am totally aware how many fungi, bacteria, and viruses inhabit the spaces in which we live and work. I am however, being cautious and trying and avoid coming down with a virus that one of us in this house will inevitably be bringing home from a shopping cart handle, gas pump, or a card terminal.

Given that the number and severity of microorganisms is ever increasing—and that some that have previously never made it out of healthcare facilities are now in the wild—I am just trying to reduce the risks that I as a saxophone player have of giving one them direct access to my bloodstream by crossing the mucus membranes.


  1. Dan

    How effective do you find this protocol?
    It would be quite hard to design a truly scientific experiment since it requires convincing a large group of people to change their protocols for a long time and follow them consistently, but did you notice that the number of times you catch a cold in a year has dropped, or that _on average_ you tend stay healthy when your colleagues don’t?

    My own view on respiratory infections is quite fatalistic (I do clean my mouthpieces and reeds though, don’t get me wrong, not like that guy who got “saxophone lung”), mostly because for a wind player there is no protection from _airborne_ transmission, so trying to avoid contact transmission is likely of little use.
    There’s also experimental data suggests that the contact route is not as important either: the most pessimistic results I could find in literature show that H1N1 virus may survive on hands of a symptomatic person for up to one hour after sneezing on them. “Second-hand” virus concentrations from touching contaminated surfaces are going to be far lower.

    I don’t catch cold any often despite my lax attitude towards it.

    1. How effective is it? I don’t know. How do you prove a negative?

      I wrote this simply to get people to think about what we put into our mouths.

      We know that contact transmission is a big factor for all kinds of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. If we can reduce those by implementing proper hand washing, and thinking about the bugs that we are packing around on all the surfaces we commonly touch, then I did my job.

      That said, we also have to be careful not to go to far with this however. Exposure to some germs are good, which is how we build immunity. Furthermore, things like antibacterial hand soaps are not a great thing either. We know that we are having a problem with drug resistance. All these antibacterial products we use as a society slowly add to bacteria’s ability to withstand the effects of antibiotics. For my part I don’t use antibacterial soap, and only use Lysol wipes during the winter months.

      I am fully aware that airborne transmission cannot be eliminated whenever you’re around sick people. This is why public health officials tell people who are sick to STAY HOME. Don’t go to work. Don’t go shopping. Stay home. Get better. Keep your germs to yourself. However, think how many times you see people hacking during cold and flu season. Many of them don’t even cover their mouths. Idiots…

      Being a former health-care worker, I was sick a lot, because I was exposed to a lot. Afterwards I was like you and had a fatalistic view of things.

      Then 4 years ago I got pneumonia. It knocked me on my ass for over a month. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t play for over 6 weeks. I slept most of my days away. Now, I have a more guarded view of things b/c I have a neuro problem likely the result of neuro virus I contracted at work 25 or so years ago. Any serious illness such as the flu or pneumonia kicks this neuro problem into overdrive. My symptoms worsen, and I am always wondering if I might be having a relapse.

      While I realize my particular situation may be unique, it could serve as a warning. None of us know what kinds of virus we are packing around, or what might trigger them. I didn’t know. Suddenly 10 years after career change I became ill with the neuro problem for the first time. Why? Who knows. It just happened. Now I live with the uncertainty of whatever “this” is.

      Take this for what it is: A cautionary tale. Take from it what you will.

      1. Theo

        From my experience the airborne route is less important than handcontact.
        Compared to visiting a school with young children, being in a big band gives you less change to get the flue. I have never seen a big band wiped out by the flue.
        The thing that worries me more is the constant lung irritation caused by airborne fine dust particles. This increases the chance to get the flue and its severity.
        This year German law made it possible to block diesel engine powered cars from entering cities for health reasons.

    1. Hi Sue. Welcome to my site.

      ***This is based on the fact that I brush my teeth before I play, and don’t eat while playing, and drink nothing but water until I’m done for the night.***

      I don’t really have a special way of cleaning reeds. Since I generally use synthetic ones (Legere Signature Series) for all but 1 of my horns, and for it I use the Rico Plasticover. I can use the same soap and water that I use to clean my MPs to clean my Legere Reeds. I generally don’t submerse the Plasticover since the black coating does tend to come off fairly easily compared to say 20 years ago. 😉

      When it comes to conventional reeds, my rule has been to never let anyone else use them. Like all my reeds, when I am finished playing, I wipe my reeds on a cloth, and store them in good reed holder of some type. Occassionally—if they haven’t died before it’s necessary—I run them under warm water a bit to get the worst germs off, and gently clean them with my finger. I then gently dry them with a clean cloth, and let them dry properly in their reed holder so the tip dries straight.

      If you really want to get out gunk that’s in your reed, then you’re best off to get a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and soak the reed in it for a few minutes. It will bubble out anything that’s in there. (Much like it will bubble out stuff in a wound, when used for wound care.) After the peroxide, you can dry it with a clean cloth and dry it in its reed holder.

      Hope this helps.

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