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How To: Coughing After Surgery

Why Coughing Is Important After Having Surgery


Updated May 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

man coughing, coughing after surgery, coughing post operatively

Coughing After Surgery

Credit: Getty Images/George Doyle

Coughing probably doesn't seem like a big deal in your day-to-day life. You feel the urge to cough, and then you cough. You probably don't even think about it because it's second nature. However, that may change after having surgery. Coughing is not nearly as easy when you are recovering after a procedure, and it certainly isn't painless, either.

Why Is Coughing Important After Surgery?

After surgery, coughing is essential for preventing pneumonia and keeping the lungs clear. Many patients avoid coughing because it can be very painful; however, it is imperative that you cough enough to prevent lung complications.

For patients who avoid coughing, or are too weak to cough, it may be necessary to provide assistance in keeping the lungs clear. In the hospital, suction can be used to assist patients with keeping their lungs clear; however, coughing is much more effective and preferable to suction.

How To Cough After Surgery

When you feel the urge to cough, you should brace your incision if you have a chest or abdominal surgical site. That means taking your hands or a small pillow and hugging it to your incision when you cough, applying gentle but firm pressure.

If your incision is on your chest, such as after an open heart surgery, you would hug a pillow to your chest directly over your incision. If your incision is on your abdomen, you would hug a pillow to your abdominal incision.

If no pillow is available, you can use your hands to brace the incision, as the pillow is primarily for comfort. Even if your incision is not on your chest or abdomen, bracing may help with pain control.

Why You Should Brace Your Incision When Coughing

Bracing your incision is very important for several reasons. Holding pressure on your incision while you cough decreases the stress on it, which can significantly decrease the pain you feel. In addition, the support you give your incision can prevent it from pulling apart and opening, a complication called dehiscence, which can become very serious. (During your routine incision care, be sure to inspect your incision for any signs that it is pulling apart or gaps are forming.)

How To Cough and Deep Breathe

Coughing and deep breathing is a technique used to help keep the lungs clear during the first few days after surgery. The technique varies slightly between facilities and physicians, but the general idea is the same.

  1. Take a deep breath, hold it for several seconds, and then slowly let it out.
  2. Repeat step one five times.
  3. Brace your incision and attempt to cough deeply.
  4. Repeat every 1-2 hours.

Sneezing After Surgery

The idea is the same with sneezing as it is with coughing -- bracing will protect your incision and help minimize the pain you feel. Never stifle a sneeze; holding one in can be far more painful than just letting it happen naturally.

When You Should Call Your Doctor

You should call your surgeon if you experience any of the following issues:

  • You notice an opening in your incision, even if it is a small one.
  • You notice any blood when you cough.
  • You feel too weak to cough, or are not strong enough to cough effectively.
  • If you have difficulty breathing, or cannot catch your breath, seek immediate medical attention.


How to Prepare For Surgery. Cheshire Medical Center Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene. Accessed January, 2012. http://www.cheshire-med.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=203&Itemid=342

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