Is Your Keyboard Making You Sick?

Probably not, experts say. But it sure is dirty.

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First, it was germ-hording purses and cellphones. Now, this week, you may have seen news reports that warn that your keyboard could be making you sick.

So what's a computer user to do? Probably not much more than you already do, experts say.

"The bottom line is it's actually nothing to worry about," says Steve Berger, director of microbiology and tropical medicine at the Tel Aviv Medical Center. "We're living in a sea of bacteria. The germs that you're dealing with are normal bacteria, and nobody's going to catch anthrax or Ebola or anything from a keyboard."

A group called Which? swabbed more than 30 keyboards in its own office and found that four keyboards were "potential health hazards" because of high levels of bacteria. A microbiologist hired by Which? suggested the group get rid of one keyboard because it had 150 times as many bacteria as the stated target—and it was five times dirtier than a toilet seat the group swabbed for comparison.

Still, the best advice isn't to worry about compulsively cleaning your keyboard, experts say. Equipment like keyboards and telephones can harbor bacteria and viruses, but using "good old soap and water on our hands is the best way to prevent transmitting illness to someone else," says Ardis Dee Hoven, a member of the American Medical Association's board of trustees. Carrying portable hand sanitizers and using them regularly—particularly if you're in a public place, frequently shaking hands with others—may also be a good idea, she says.

Hoven says those who are particularly concerned about germs might also want to wipe their keyboards and phones down with a bleach solution every so often. But if you don't regularly clean your computer equipment, you're not alone. The group Which? asked more than 4,000 people how often they clean their keyboards. Forty-six percent said they do it less than once a month, 22 percent do so once a month, and most of the rest clean their keyboards more than once a month.

If you find the prospect that germs lurk under your fingertips or on your purse too icky to bear, there are steps you can take (and products you can buy, of course) to help keep them—and your keyboard—relatively sanitized.

  • At least one cellphone, made by Motorola and introduced in 2005, is said to be resistant to germs.