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Surgical wound care


Alternate Names

Surgical incision care; Wound dehiscence care

What to Expect at Home

An incision is a "cut" through the skin that is made during surgery. It also called a "surgical wound." Some incisions are small, and others are very long. The size of the incision will depend on the kind of surgery you had.

Do not wear tight clothing that rubs against the incision while it is healing.

Sometimes, a surgical wound will break open (wound dehiscence). This may happen along the entire cut or just part of it. Your doctor may decide not to close it again with sutures, or stitches.

If your doctor does not close your wound again with sutures, you will need to learn how to care for it at home, as it heals slowly.

Proper Handwashing

You will need to wash your hands many times when you change your wound dressing and clean your wound. Follow these steps:

  • Take all jewelry off your hands.
  • Wet your hands, pointing them down under warm running water.
  • Add soap and wash your hands for 15 to 30 seconds (sing "Happy Birthday" or the "Alphabet Song" 1 time through). Clean under your nails also.
  • Rinse well.
  • Dry with a clean towel.
Removing the Old Dressing

Your doctor will tell you how often to change your dressing. Be prepared before starting the dressing change:

  • Wash your hands before touching the dressing.
  • Make sure you have all the supplies you will need handy.
  • Have a clean work surface for all of the equipment you will need.

Remove the old dressing:

  • Carefully loosen the tape.
  • Use a clean medical glove to grab the old dressing and pull it off.
  • If the dressing sticks to the wound, get it wet and try again.
  • Put the old dressing in a plastic bag and set it aside.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water again after you take off the old dressing.
Caring for the Wound

You may use a gauze pad or soft cloth to clean your wound:

  • Use a normal saline solution (salt water) or mild soapy water for most wound cleaning.
  • Soak the gauze or cloth in the saline solution or soapy water, and gently dab or wipe the wound with it.
  • Try to remove all drainage and any dried blood or other matter that may have built up around the wound.
  • Do not use skin cleansers, alcohol, peroxide, iodine, or soaps with antibacterial chemicals. These can damage the wound tissue and slow your healing.

Your doctor may also ask you to irrigate, or wash out, your wound:

  • Fill a syringe with salt water or soapy water, as your doctor or nurse taught you to.
  • Hold the syringe 1 to 6 inches away from the wound, and spray hard enough into the wound to wash away drainage and discharge.
  • Be careful not to harm the wound tissue.
  • Use a soft, dry cloth to carefully pat the wound dry.

Do not put any lotion, cream, or herbal remedies on or around your wound without asking your doctor first.

Putting on the New Dressing

Place the clean dressing on the wound as your doctor or nurse taught you to. You may be using a wet-to-dry dressing. See also: Wet to dry dressing changes

Wash your hands well with soap and water when you are finished.

Throw away all the old dressings and other used supplies in a waterproof plastic bag. Close it tightly, then double it before putting it in the trash.

Wash any soiled laundry from the dressing change separately from other laundry. Ask your doctor if you need to add bleach to the wash water.

Use a dressing only 1 time. Never reuse it.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor if:

  • You see any of these changes around the incision:
    • More redness
    • More pain
    • Swelling
    • Bleeding
    • The wound is larger or deeper
    • The wound looks dried out or dark
  • The drainage coming from or around the incision:
    • Does not decrease after 3 to 5 days
    • Is increasing
    • Becomes thick, tan, or yellow, or smells bad (pus)
  • Your temperature is above 100 °F for more than 4 hours.
Care Points
Foot amputation - discharge
Leg amputation - discharge
Pediatric heart surgery - discharge
Leg or foot amputation - dressing change
Hemovac drain
Jackson-Pratt drain
Phantom limb pain
Tracheostomy care
Heart pacemaker - discharge
Heart bypass surgery - discharge
Sterile technique
Ventriculoperitoneal shunt - discharge
Large bowel resection – discharge
Small bowel resection - discharge
Total colectomy or proctocolectomy - discharge
Central venous catheter - dressing change
Central venous catheter - flushing
Peripherally inserted central catheter
Ankle replacement - discharge
Elbow replacement - discharge
Knee arthroscopy - discharge
Spleen removal - child - discharge
Spleen removal - laparoscopic - adults - discharge
Spleen removal - open - adults - discharge
Thyroid gland removal - discharge
Kidney removal - discharge
Wet to dry dressing changes

Fonder MA, Lazarus GS, Cowan DA, Aronson-Cook B, Kohli AR, Mamelak AJ. Treating the chronic wound: A practical approach to the care of nonhealing wounds and wound care dressings. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008 Feb;58(2):185-206.

Proper hand washing
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Diaphragmatic hernia repair - congenital
Omphalocele repair
Large bowel resection
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Spleen removal
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Pectus excavatum repair
Carotid artery surgery
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Angioplasty and stent placement - heart
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Bunion removal
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Spinal fusion
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Hip joint replacement
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Skin graft
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Patent urachus repair
Testicular torsion repair
Transurethral resection of the prostate
Bladder exstrophy repair
Hypospadias repair
Kidney removal
Ventriculoperitoneal shunting
Meningocele repair
Heart bypass surgery - minimally invasive
Gastric bypass surgery
Shoulder arthroscopy
ACL reconstruction
Ankle replacement
Knee microfracture surgery
Elbow replacement
Ventricular assist device
Endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy
Radical prostatectomy
Pediatric heart surgery
Leg or foot amputation
Heart pacemaker
Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator
Gallbladder removal - laparoscopic
Related Taxonomy

Review Date: 12/2/2008
Reviewed By: Robert J. Fitzgibbons, Jr., MD, FACS, Harry E. Stuckenhoff Professor of Surgery, Chief of General Surgery, and Associate Chairman, Department of Surgery, Creighton University School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2009 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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