I only stumbled onto this thing called "Saxophone Lung" by accident when I saw a youtube video from a TV news site talking about this trombone player who was always sick. That is, he was always sick until he took a vacation for a week and didn't bring his trombone with him.
When he got back home, and started playing again, it came back. That is what tipped the doctors off.
Saxophone lung can be a serious health condition
Sometimes also referred to as "bagpiper's lung," it is an infection that affects some wind instrument players, causing them to suffer from symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.
The main cause of this condition is the accumulation of allergens and contaminants in the instrument's tubing. This can be caused by dust, pollen, molds, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Though you wouldn't maybe think of it, it's the kind of thing that can be serious enough actually kill you.
Check out this news report about the trombonist I am talking about.
You really need to seriously clean your horn
You don't need to clean it completely, every day or anything like that.
And It doesn't hurt to clean the outside of the instrument from time to time. Ideally, you could routinely wipe down your instrument with a damp cloth or use an appropriate cleaning solution before each practice session or performance.
But the biggest area of concern is inside the thing, where you can't see what's growing. The best (worst) stuff grows on the inside, where it's moist and dark. (Think mushrooms. That's the kind of environment that is the perfect breeding ground for mold and fungus. Those things can kill ya.)
If nothing else, at least clean your mouthpiece
It's a great practice to get into a habit of rinsing out your moutpiece a couple times a week if you can. Also, for those with reeds, it's good to rinse those periodically, too.
It won't hurt to soak your mouthpiece or your reeds in some mouthwash once in a while. Pour some mouthwash into a glass and add some water. Let the stuff soak in there for a bit.
Then pull the mouthpiece and the reeds out of that mess and rinse them off with some gentle scrubbing action with your fingertips and maybe a fine brush or a cotton swab in there.
You just might be amazed at how much stuff you've grown in there.
An occasional deep cleaning is good, too.
A regular check-up from an instrument tech is not a bad idea.
If you're doing that, you might want to ask them about an "overhaul" - not necessarily to replace all your pads, but the ones that need it. And when they're at it, ask if they give that horn a bath.
This is, admittedly, easier for brass players than woodwind players. Those guys have instruments you can dunk in the tub without a lot of risk of hurting pads and the like.
Store in the case or out of the case?
Keeping the instrument in a case when not in use can also help prevent dust accumulation. But there is one thing you should keep in mind if you store it in its case when not in use.
If you're going to store it in its case, swab it out first and let it sit out for a little while for the remaining moisture in there to evaporate into the surrounding air so you're not storing it moist in the case. Otherwise, you're probably not any further ahead.
You are what you eat
Unfortunately, so is your instrument sometimes.
I did a gig last week with a trumpet player beside me. When he went to play his first lick on his first blow on the gig, he suddenly realized the steak sandwich he had been munching before the gig was partly lodged in the pipe of his mouthpiece.
Of course, that doesn't happen to everyone. But you should avoid eating or drinking while playing to reduce the risk of exposing the instrument to food particles that could harbor bacteria and other contaminants.
And be aware of this: it's the micro-particles that feed the fungi in your horn. You might not realize it and you might even want to deny it. But the reality is if you're eating or drinking while you play, you're blowing small droplets into that thing that contain micro-quantities of the stuff you've been eating or drinking.
You're feeding the life in the horn, like it or not.
Should you see your doctor?
This is sort of the side-question. Obviously, if you're dealing with anything that seems to be a recurring or ongoing problem with your lungs, you should be seeking medical care from a healthcare professional.
But if you think you might be dealing with symptoms associated with "saxophone lung." be sure to tell your doctor that you play a wind instrument. Symptoms may include a persistent cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain. Early diagnosis is key in order to prevent further complications and allow for successful treatment.
Saxophone lung is a serious condition that players should take steps to protect themselves against. Regularly cleaning the instrument and avoiding contact with allergens are essential practices for saxophonists to ensure their health and safety while playing.
1. Csikai, E., & Godard, P. (2009). Saxophone Lung: Allergy or Infection? American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, 179(8), 711–712.
2. Reina, D., & Riege, K. (2018). Saxophone hygiene: an educational review for music teachers and students on proper instrument care to prevent lung problems. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 28(3), 268–277.
3. National Jewish Health Website (2020). Saxophone Lung: What Is It and How Can I Avoid It?
4. American Lung Association Website (2019). Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Saxophone to Prevent Allergies and Infections. https://www.lung.org/blog/cleaning-and-disinfecting-your saxophone
5. Mayo Clinic Website (2020). Asthma: Diagnosis & Treatment. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseasesconditions/asthma/diagnosistreatment/syc20372747?p=1
6. World Allergy Organization Website (2019). Allergic Reactions to Metals Used in Medical Devices. https://www.worldallergy.org/UserFiles/file/WAO_White_Book_on_Allergy_Update-MetalAllergies-Final.pdf
7. Center for Disease Control and Prevention Website (2020). Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Saxophone to Prevent Allergies and Infections. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/disinfecting-your-home.html
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Website (2020). Cleaning Your Instrument to Prevent Lung Problems. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/musicians-clean-instruments.html
9. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Website (2018). Saxophone Playing and Respiratory Health: How to Protect Yourself from Saxophone Lung. https://www.aaaai.org/about-the-aaaai/newsroom/news-releases/saxophoneplayingrespiratoryhealthprotectionfromlungdiseases
10. American Thoracic Society Website (2018). Saxophone Lung: What Is It and How Can I Avoid It? https://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/saxophone-lung.php
11. American Lung Association Website (2020). Allergies and Your Lungs.