Bed linens can indeed be sources of infection; so too can pillows. Linens in hotel rooms get washed and sanitized between users but pillows do not. And what about those pillows offered on airlines during long flights? Should you use them?

Studies supported by health authorities proved pillows carried such viruses and bacteria as E. Coli, MRSA, and flu. We know many of these illnesses exist outside the hospital settings today.

Why are pillows a source for infection?

Pillows that are shared on a regular basis, such as those offered on long distance air flights and in hotel rooms across the globe often have a life span far beyond what manufacturers recommend. Pillows have small holes in them where needles pierced the material during the sewing process, plus over time they do develop rips and tears, and some pillows are created using materials that have a wide weave. Minute as they may seem all of these holes are a place for bacteria and other contaminants to enter and live within the construction materials.

Fungal spores can also live within a pillow, a food source for dust mites. Sharing a pillow used by many hundreds of other people can easily become a perfect place for fungus to grow. This makes travel seriously difficult for allergy sufferers.

How do contaminants get into a pillow?

Whether they admit it or not many people drool when they sleep. If a person is ill, whether actively or not, their saliva can soak through the pillowcase and into the pillow material itself. Saliva can contain any number of infectious agents that can seep through the pillowcase and into the material of the pillow.

If the last person to use a pillow had been ill and vomiting trace amounts of vomitus may still remain in their saliva, introducing still other types of bacteria or viral contaminants into the pillow.

Sweat and other bodily fluids are other means by which contaminants can be left behind and absorbed into the base material of a pillow.

Types of infections/illnesses that may be transmitted from a pillow

World travel is so easy, and necessary in today’s global atmosphere. So exposure to a huge range of viral and bacterial contagions is possible. Here is a short list of some possible illnesses or infections that may be left on a well used, shared pillow:

  • Ebola: this virus is spread through body fluids. Though fragile when exposed to air there could exist the potential for cross infection
  • Leprosy : spread via droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person
  • Chicken pox/Shingles: spread through contact from exudates of open sores
  • Influenza: infection is present in saliva and mucous membranes
  • Pink eye (conjunctivitis): spread through contact of contaminated articles that were in contact with the sufferers’ eyes

Note: If a person suffers from dry eyes they are more prone to picking up an infection, due to lower tolerance to viruses and bacteria that may be on the pillow (in the pillow). There are several different viruses and bacteria that can cause pink eye and some of these viruses/bacteria are capable of surviving within the pillow.

Avoiding the dangers of shared pillows

In today’s world travel whether for business or pleasure, is a constant and ever growing phenomenon. So too is the threat and spread of new diseases. One simple way to reduce the risk is by choosing to travel using a personal pillow, and avoiding those shared by thousands of other travelers.

 

Sources

UK Government Health web site

http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/can-clothes-and-towels-spread-germs.aspx

University of Manchester

The published study “Pillows: A hot bed of fungal spores”, in ScienceDaily, Oct 15, 2005

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

https://www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/clinical.html