For years, trombone player Scott Bean had struggled with health problems. "I had a horrible deep barking cough -- especially when I played trombone. I had a sore throat, lost 60 pounds at a time, had a low-grade fever," he told Chicago radio station WBEZ News in 2010. "It was a huge hindrance."
At first, doctors thought he had asthma, but the usual treatments didn't seem to work. Then, after going on holiday without his trombone for the first time in 15 years, he began to feel better. Mark Metersky, a professor at the University of Connecticut Medical School's division of pulmonary and critical care, decided to test his trombone. He found that a type of bacteria called mycobacterium (similar to tuberculosis), was growing inside the instrument. It was getting into Scott's lungs each time he inhaled.
Professor Metersky then asked 10 professional musicians for permission to test their trombones and trumpets as well. "It was disgusting". Professor Metersky reported. "Imagine the worst thing you've found in your refrigerator in food that you've left for a few months, and that was coming out of these instruments."
Woodwind players often have the same problem. In 2013, a report presented at meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology described another medical condition commonly known as "saxophone lung". The report referred the case of a Dixie band performer (actually a clarinet player) who had a persistent cough and breathlessness. A chest X-ray showed the his lungs were full of mucus. The researchers discovered that his clarinet reed was contaminated with the mould Exophiala. He was given oral steroids, but he did not get better until he sterilized his instrument. Apparently, he had not cleaned his saxophone properly for 30 years!
This sounds extreme, but it may not be that unusual. The picture below is of a clarinet serviced by Legato Internasional in early 2020.
One study reported in the March/April 2011 issue of General Dentistry, suggested that the dirtiest instrument in the typical school band is the clarinet. A study of 13 brass and woodwind instruments at a secondary school Oklahoma City Tulsa found 295 different bacteria as well as various yeasts and moulds. Dr R. Thomas Glass, the lead author of the study, said "The woodwinds seemed to be easier to contaminate. It has to do with the fact they are not made of metal and allow for the accumulation of the bacteria, yeast and fungi.”
So now you know! Make sure you keep your instrument clean, especially the mouthpiece. Regular cleaning of your wind instrument is essential for the sake of your health.