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Incision Care After Surgery

Overview

After surgery, you will need to take care of the incision as it heals. Caring for your incision may help lower the risk of problems like infection.

Your doctor may have used stitches, staples, skin glue, or tape strips to close the incision. You will need to keep the area clean, change the bandage according to your doctor's instructions, and watch for signs of infection.

If you did not get instructions from your doctor, follow this general advice.

Tips for reducing the risk of infection

To reduce the risk of infection:

  • Ask your doctor how long you need to keep the area dry. Follow your doctor's instructions exactly.
  • Look at the incision every day. Check for signs of infection. These signs may include having a fever or any of these changes at the incision site:
    • A yellow or green discharge that is increasing.
    • A change in the odour of the discharge.
    • A change in the size of the incision.
    • Redness or hardening of the surrounding area.
    • The incision feels hot to the touch.
    • Increasing or unusual pain.
    • Excessive bleeding that has soaked through the bandage.
  • Change the bandage as your doctor recommends. If you didn't get instructions from your doctor, gently wash the area daily with warm water, and pat it dry. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol.

Do not:

  • Scrub or rub incisions.
  • Remove the tape strips (such as Steri-Strips) from incisions unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Submerge or soak your incision in water until your doctor says it's okay. This includes a bath, hot tub, or swimming pool.
  • Use lotion or powder on incisions.
  • Expose incisions to sunlight.

You may shower 24 to 48 hours after surgery. Before you shower, cover the bandage with a plastic bag or use another method of keeping it dry. If the incision is on the front of your body, you can take a shower with your back to the shower head. Allow the warm and soapy water to run across your shoulders and down over the incision. Pat the incision dry.

You may notice some soreness, tenderness, tingling, numbness, and itching around the incision. There may also be mild oozing and bruising, and a small lump may form. This is normal and not a cause for concern.

Caring for stitches, staples, skin glue, or adhesive strips

Stitches or staples normally cause some redness and swelling where the stitch enters the skin, along with mild irritation and itching. Your stitches may dissolve over time. Or your doctor will tell you when to come back to have stitches or staples removed. You may have some drainage from the incision for the first few days after surgery. Contact your doctor if the discharge:

  • Does not decrease after a few days.
  • Becomes bright red with blood or contains pus.

The incisions may be protected with skin glue or small adhesive strips instead of a bandage. If glue was used, be sure to dry the incision area right away if it gets wet. The glue will fall off on its own after a bit of time. If adhesive strips were used, leave them in place until they become loose and fall off on their own.

Other incision care tips

After some surgeries, you may be given special instructions other than these for taking care of the incision. Be sure to follow those instructions carefully. If you are confused by the instructions or you have a question, call your doctor's office. If the office is closed, leave a message with the answering service. If your pain has increased or you think you may have an infection, call your doctor as soon as possible. If you have not heard back from your doctor and you are feeling worse, such as you have a high fever or shaking chills, go to the emergency room for care.

Don't expose your incision to direct sun for 3 to 9 months after surgery. As an incision heals, the new skin that is formed over the cut is very sensitive to sunlight and will burn more easily than normal skin. Worse scarring may occur if the new skin is exposed to the sun or you get a sunburn.

How to change a bandage

Before you start, make sure you have gauze pads, a box of medical gloves, surgical tape, a plastic bag, and scissors.

  1. Prepare supplies by opening the gauze packages and cutting new tape strips.
  2. Wash and dry your hands. Put on medical gloves.
  3. Loosen the tape around the old bandage.
  4. Remove the old bandage.
  5. If your doctor told you to do so, clean the incision.

    Use these steps.

    1. Gently wash it with soap and water to remove the crust.
    2. Do not scrub or soak the wound.
    3. Do not use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or iodine, which can harm the tissue and slow wound healing.
    4. Air-dry the incision or pat it dry with a clean, fresh towel before reapplying the bandage.
  6. Inspect the incision for signs of infection.
  7. Hold a clean, sterile gauze pad by the corner and place over the incision.
  8. Use a few strips of tape to hold the gauze pad in place.
  9. Put all trash in a plastic bag. Remove your gloves last.
  10. Seal plastic bag and throw it away.
  11. Wash your hands.

When to call for help

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now if:

  • You have symptoms of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • Bright red blood soaks through the bandage over your incision.
  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have nausea or vomiting that gets worse or won't stop.
  • You are too sick to your stomach to drink any fluids.

Related Information

Credits

Current as of: July 26, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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