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Caring For Your Incision After Surgery

How to Treat Your Incision

By

Updated May 29, 2014

Surgeon preparing surgical instrument
Cultura Science/KaPe Schmidt/Riser/Getty Images

After surgery is over, most patients have questions and concerns about caring for an incision. Incision care is not difficult, but proper incision care is absolutely essential for preventing infection and other complications. Good incision care, along with help from your surgeon, can also help prevent scars. Plan on spending a minimum of 10 to 20 minutes caring for your incision each day, or more if you have multiple incisions or special incision care instructions.

Incision Care In The Hospital

After your surgery, it is likely that your surgeon will perform the first bandage change on your incisions. This is so the incision can be inspected for signs of infection and to make sure that the incision is going to close completely.

Ideally, the incision will be dry or have only slight drainage. The stitches, sutures or surgical glue will hold the sides of the incision closely together, or "well-approximated" in a neat line. Sutures will be tight enough to pull the incision closed, but not so tight that they attempt to tear apart.

Many people look away while the surgeon is doing this, or close their eyes, but watching what the surgeon (or nurse) does is a great way to learn the correct bandage change procedure. Watching is a good idea for another reason, too. Later on, you'll be able to determine if your wound looks better or worse than it did during the last bandage change.

Taking Care of Your Surgical Incision At Home

In the hospital, your surgeon and nurses take responsibility for your incision care. But once you are at home, the responsibility is all yours. You will hopefully have been given guidance and instructions regarding the care of your incision, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have questions. “How often should I change my surgical bandage?” is a common question, quickly followed by an even bigger question, "How do I change my bandage?" You may also be wondering if there is a right way to clean your incision, or if you can clean it too much. (In short: There is, and you can.)

Making Sure Your Incision Is Healthy

Once you start changing your own bandage, you will also need to inspect the incision, just as your surgeon did, to make sure it is healing properly. You will want to make sure the wound isn’t opening, a condition called dehiscence, or showing signs of infection.

After you’ve inspected your incision, you may find yourself tempted to speed your healing by slathering on ointment, cleaning the incision with peroxide or alcohol, or applying powder. Resist this urge, as it will not help you heal faster and may actually slow the process.

Another thing that you will need to avoid is removing the sutures, staples and/or scab from your incision. It is normal to want your incision to appear as “clean” as possible, but the scab protects the wound and promotes healing below it. Removing or picking at a scab also makes it more likely that you will experience scarring after your surgery.

When Bad Things Happen To a Well Cared For Incision

There are times when, no matter how hard you work to prevent infection or take proper care of your incision, you will have complications. Ideally, you will be able to recognize common problems that arise after surgery, such as the signs of infection, so you can seek medical attention promptly. Some of these things are easy to spot, such as pus coming out of your incision. Others may seem like a minor annoyance, such as a tiny gap in your incision, but can develop into a major surgical complication quickly and should be addressed with your surgeon.

I'm Getting Better. Can I Do Normal Activities Now?

If you find that your incision is healing well and your pain after surgery has subsided, you may want to get back to your normal activities. After a few weeks of showers, you may find yourself craving a bath or a swim, but wondering if it may be too soon. With baths, and other activities like exercise and sex after surgery, let pain and caution be your guide.

Are you wondering if it is safe to lift a 10-pound object? Err on the side of caution, and don't lift it. If you do try an activity, allow your pain to tell you if it is too soon.

Don't expect your recovery to be pain-free; that usually does not happen. Instead, pay attention when activities increase your pain level. Also, be aware that you can call your surgeon if you are having problems. You may not be able to speak to your surgeon directly, but the office staff can guide you and help you determine if what you are experiencing is normal and if you need to be seen by a doctor.

More Answers to Common Surgical Incision Questions:

Sources:

Incision Care. FamilyDoctor.org http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/healthy/firstaid/after-injury/095.html

Living With MRSA. Maine.gov http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/documents/scLivWithMRSA06.pdf

Post-op Instructions: Taking Care of Yourself After Your Operation. National Institutes of Health http://www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/patient_education/pepubs/postop.pdf

Postoperative Patient Care. Nursing Fundamentals. http://www.brooksidepress.org/Products/Nursing_Fundamentals_II/lesson_8_Section_4.htm

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