Caring for Your Incision After Surgery

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After surgery is over, most patients have questions and concerns about caring for an incision. They wonder what cleanser is the right cleanser, how hard can they scrub the incision, and if they should be worried about drainage coming out of the incision. Don't worry, incision care is not difficult, and with some quick tips, you will be able to take care of your incision like a professional.

close up of doctor bandaging one hand after an accident
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Proper incision care is absolutely essential for preventing infection and other complications, the good news is that you will be educated on wound care before returning home after your procedure. The added bonus is that this care, along with help from your surgeon, can 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. This is enough time to inspect your incision and change your bandage if you have one. With minimally invasive surgery techniques becoming more and more common, many patients don't even have bandages on their incisions.

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.

Rather than looking away, 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.

When Can You Do Normal Activities?

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. Listen to your body and remember that "no pain no gain" does not apply during the recovery after surgery.

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.

A Word From Verywell

It is absolutely worth your time and energy to do your wound care the right way every single day. An infection will dramatically slow down your recovery, and that means you won't get back to your regular life as quickly as you hoped. Infection is easily—and quickly—prevented with appropriate handwashing, wound cleansing, and dressing changes, and that means a faster recovery for you. As an added bonus, a well cared for incision is far less likely to scar, so keep that in mind when you are wondering if the effort is worth the reward.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jourdan M, Madfes D, Lima E, Tian Y, Seité S. Skin care management for medical and aesthetic procedures to prevent scarring. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2019;12:799-804. doi:10.2147/CCID.S218134

  2. Byrne M, Aly A. The surgical suture. Aesthet Surg J. 2019;39(Supplement_2):S67-S72. doi:10.1093/asj/sjz036

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Incision Care.

  4. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention. Frequently Asked Questions About Surgical Site Infections.

  5. Campsen, MD J, University of Utah Health. Getting Life Back To Normal After Surgery.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Pain Control After Surgery.

Additional Reading
  • Incision Care.

  • Living With MRSA.

  • Postoperative Patient Care. Nursing Fundamentals.

  • Post-op Instructions: Taking Care of Yourself After Your Operation. National Institutes of Health.

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.