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Caring for Wounds After Surgery

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Updated June 23, 2014

Bandaged woman lying in bed
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When You Go Home:

Just before you go home after surgery, the surgeon may check the wound and change your dressing. You may have discomfort or numbness around the wound at first; this is normal. Your surgeon will give you pain medicine to keep you comfortable. For the first few days after your operation, take your pain medicine regularly or at the first sign of discomfort, as directed. Notify your surgeon immediately if pain suddenly gets worse.

The wound may also itch for a few days after surgery. This is usually a normal part of the healing process. However, it could be a sign of a problem, such as infection or stitches that are too tight. Call your surgeon if you're uncomfortable, and don't scratch at the incision site.

Wound Care 101:

First, you must always follow any specific instructions given to you by your surgeon. Generally, you will want to make sure to keep the wound clean and dry for the first 72 hours. Your surgeon will tell you when you can shower after that.

If you have gone home with a dressing on your wound, you'll need to change it every 1 to 2 days, as directed by your surgeon, always inspecting the wound for redness, weeping, swelling, or “popped” stitches. Inform your surgeon right away if any of these are present.

To avoid infection, keep the dressing clean and dry while it's on, and always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after touching or changing the dressing. You should not touch your wounds unnecessarily, and you should avoid baths, swimming pools, and hot tubs until your incision is completely healed. If you have butterfly bandages, they may peel slightly a few days after surgery. Do not pick at the bandages. They will fall off on their own when it is okay for them to do so. Removing them prematurely could invite problems with healing, including infection.

Helping Healing Along:

In healthy patients, most wounds heal within 2 weeks. However, healing will probably take longer if you have a health problem such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, or if you are taking certain drugs such as steroids or chemotherapy drugs. Talk to your surgeon if any of these special circumstances apply to you.

You can do your part to speed and assist healing by eating a nutritious diet high in vitamin C, protein, and zinc -- all known to promote wound healing. Your surgeon may even recommend nutritional supplements to enhance healing. All of these steps can go a long way towards minimizing post-surgical scars.

Source: Patient Education Series: Postoperative Wound Care; Connie Sarvis, RN; Nursing2006, December 2006, Volume 36 Number 12

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