You are here:

Flute/flute disinfecting - sensitive area of question


Dear Herbert:  This is an extremely sensitive question so I decided to ask it privately first. Later it can be published without my name if you think it would benefit someone else.

Recently for a homecoming event I loaned a very trusted and good friend my Flute - I was unable to play for the actual event and my friend needed to borrow one because the friend's instrument was in the shop for repair. Issue: my friend is HIV positive which I didn't know prior and I am a recent cancer patient now in remission but with a still compromised immune system myself. I do not believe my friend would intentional put me at risk because this friend is well aware of my situation.

BUT in order to error on the side of caution and safety I feel I need to thoroughly clean and disinfect my flute prior to playing it again.  Any suggestions on how I should do this? Is it possible to use alcohol swabs to clean inside and out to handle this? other suggestions??

I Appreciate your discretion here. My flute is very expensive and it is solid silver and very old and important to me and I do still play. I think this is detailed enough however I can answer any addition questions you may have by email or if you feel it necessary to discuss via phone that can be arranged. Thanks so much!

Hello Phyllis

First of all, I think it important to point out that according to all reliable sources (such as the various health departments of the US Government), HIV cannot be spread via saliva.  You can check their websites for confirmation.  Unless your friend had open wounds on their hands/chin that might have gotten blood on your flute, you should have nothing to worry about from sharing your instrument, and even then, the odds of becoming ill are extraordinarily slim.  If you have had no issues from casual contact with your friend up to this point, second hand flute sharing is probably not the greatest of risks.

However, if you're so concerned that you have to have the flute cleaned, you have to consider just how far you're willing to take the cleaning.  It's entirely possible for any competent repairer to remove the keys and most would have enough alcohol on hand (it's a common solvent used in our industry) to completely soak the body tube.  A few minutes in an alcohol bath, and the body tube would be about as sanitary as it could get.  This shouldn't cost much, but will obviously necessitate a trip to your repairer, as you should not attempt to take your flute apart yourself.  The keywork could not be put through this treatment, though.

Polished metal tubes are not a hospitable home for sources of infection, however, and if any part of the instrument posed a risk, it would be the soft, porous materials (pads, corks, etc.).  As such, you may opt to have the instrument completely stripped down and repadded.  This would be extremely expensive, but would allow for the most thorough cleaning, as it would dispose of replaceable parts that are more likely to be an issue, and allow the keywork to be fully disassembled and cleaned along with the body tube.

The least thorough (but cheapest and easiest) option would be to source some alcohol swabs (the sort commonly found in first aid kits) and wipe down the various contact points of the instrument at home.  Be sure if you go this route to keep the alcohol away from the pads and out of the keywork.  As I mentioned, it's a solvent used to remove lubricants from instrument mechanisms, and you need oil in your keys in order for them to continue working smoothly with as little wear as possible.  This would sanitize the surfaces you could get at, but would leave large parts of the instrument untouched.

So it really depends on exactly how worried you are, what your time and budgetary constraints might be, and how willing you are to discuss this situation with your repairer.  There are a range of options available, though it's probably not necessary to do more than disinfect the lip plate with an alcohol swab (as one should do after sharing a flute with ANYONE, HIV-positive or not).

I hope this is helpful.  If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask.



All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Herbert Smith


I can answer questions about almost any flute-related topic.

I have trained professionally as a flute repair tech and music educator, and have a broad range of experiences as a performer. I also have experience with a huge array of flutes with any imaginable material or specification, and can comment on the quality of various instruments, as well as guide people through the flute-buying process. I'm willing and able to discuss various flute gadgets (Valgon rings, Foster extensions, etc.) as well.

I'm very familiar with piccolo, alto, and other harmony flutes (including those in unusual keys, such as Eb flute, Db piccolo, G treble, Ab alto piccolo, Flute D'amore, Contrabass, etc.).

I am also glad to offer advice on how to approach difficulties within pieces of music, offer teaching tips to those who give lessons, or answer just about any other flute-related query you can throw at me!

Please note, however, that I am not an appraisal service, and will not provide estimates of value. Please do not ask me about the value of your flute. I also must decline to date instruments based on their serial numbers.


I'm a professional repair tech with years of experience, and a veteran high school band director. I've maintained a successful studio for private flute lessons for many years, and have performed professionally in just about any imaginable venue.

I have bachelor's degrees in music education and performance from highly regarded universities, and have trained with one of the best flute techs/flute makers in the US.

©2016 All rights reserved.