How to Clean a Stethoscope in 3 Steps

Even clinicians who regularly wash their hands, rarely–if ever–clean their stethoscopes. Fortunately, knowing how to clean the various parts of your stethoscope—tubing, diaphragm, and eartips—is a simple matter and it only takes 60 seconds to disinfect between patients. Read on to discover why it’s so important to clean your stethoscope and the best practices for disinfecting this critical diagnostic tool.

Doctor uses stethoscope to listen to patient chest sounds

Why Clean a Stethoscope?

Your stethoscope only touches a patient’s skin, so it can’t be that dirty, right? Wrong. One study of microbe samples taken from stethoscopes found S. aureus, Acinetobacter and Klebsiella pneumoniae. What’s more, half the doctors in the study admitted to never cleaning their stethoscopes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stethoscopes are categorized as noncritical patient-care items. These items only touch intact skin and therefore pose the least risk of infection transmission among clinical equipment.

However, stethoscopes should still be wiped down between patients to prevent the transmission of possible germs. They should also receive a more thorough disinfectant periodically or if visibly soiled. Regular stethoscope cleaning is especially important in hospitals, where patients are more likely both to be carrying infectious diseases and to be vulnerable to them.

Essentially, if you’d wash your hands in a given scenario, then you should also wipe down your stethoscope–especially before and after a patient exam. (This approach also extends to other objects that can carry germs, including pens, penlights, cell phones and even the sleeves of garments.)

Dos and Don’ts for Cleaning a Stethoscope

Knowing how to clean a stethoscope is almost as easy as knowing how to use a stethoscope, but a few tips do go a long way. Follow these guidelines to make sure that you’re cleaning your stethoscope without accidentally compromising its parts:

  • Do use a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol solution, or better yet a dedicated stethoscope cleaner.
  • Do wash your hands thoroughly before cleaning the stethoscope.
  • Do wipe down any surface you plan to lay the stethoscope on for cleaning. Throw away that wipe and use a new one for cleaning the actual stethoscope.
  • Don’t immerse the stethoscope in liquid–only wipe it down.
  • Don’t put the stethoscope into sterilization equipment or otherwise subject it to a sterilization process.
  • Do keep your stethoscope away from extreme heat, cold solvents and oils.
  • Do be careful when using hand sanitizer to wipe down the stethoscope. It may contain other additives besides isopropyl alcohol that can damage the stethoscope.
  • Do follow manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning your stethoscope. Some models, especially electronic stethoscopes, may have special instructions for cleaning.
  • Do follow best practices for cleaning the different stethoscope parts (see below).

Step #1: How to Clean Stethoscope Tubing

Unbend the stethoscope tubing and lay it flat. Thoroughly wipe down the tubing, making sure to cover the entire circumference, for at least 60 seconds. Be aware that some disinfectants not specially made for stethoscope tubing can cause the rubber to become discolored, brittle or cracked, especially with frequent use. If you notice this happening to your stethoscope tubing, discontinue use and find a new cleaner.

Step #2: How to Clean Stethoscope Earpieces

While you probably don’t have time to do this between every patient, if your stethoscope needs a deep cleaning, you can remove the eartips from the eartubes. Wipe them down thoroughly. Use a bit of soapy water to clean out the inside if earwax or another substance is stuck inside. Let them dry thoroughly and then snap the eartips back onto the ribbed ends of the eartubes and wiggle them to make sure they’re firmly in place.

Step #3: How to Clean a Stethoscope Diaphragm

If you have a regular metal tunable diaphragm, you can wipe it down with hand sanitizer or an alcohol wipe for 60 seconds without removing it. For a more thorough cleaning, remove the diaphragm and wipe it with alcohol or wash it with soapy water. Dry all parts thoroughly before reassembly. If you have an electronic stethoscope or an otherwise specialized diaphragm, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning.

Cleaning your stethoscope regularly will help keep both you and your patients healthy and safe. The entire process takes only a minute or two, and if you use a proper stethoscope cleaner and restorer, it will even prolong the life of your stethoscope as you clean it.