How to Care For a Surgical Incision

Surgical incisions require daily care in order to heal quickly and completely without becoming infected. Closed surgical incisions require the same care whether they were closed with sutures, staples, steri-strips or surgical glue. Open incisions, or incisions that are left open for the surgeon to close at a later time, require very different care from the standard closed incision.


Cleaning Your Surgical Incision

Doctor consulting her patient
Eva-Katalin / Getty Images

Good handwashing technique, using warm water and soap, should take no less than 30 seconds. A quick wash under the water is not adequate to protect your wound from infection.

Hand washing should be done before touching your incision, before changing the dressing on your incision if you have one, after using the restroom, and before showering.

If you have had surgery and your incision is still healing, plan on showering at least once a day if you are able. A shower is an ideal way to clean your incision and remove soap residue without softening the incision to the point of weakness.

A gentle antibacterial soap is ideal for someone healing from surgery to help prevent infection. Liquid soap may be easier to use, as it can be easily applied without a washcloth. Be sure to rinse your incision well to make sure no soap residue remains after showering.

Take care not to scrub your incision when you are in the shower. Applying a small amount of soap and rinsing it well should be adequate. Take care not to scrub the incision, which may remove scabs, slow healing and irritate the incision.

While it is safe to take a regular shower, it is important not to allow the incision to be wet so long that it puckers (how your fingers do after a bath or a swim) and softens.

Be Gentle

If your wound was closed with steri-strips or surgical glue do not scrub or use a washcloth on it. They may appear dirty, which is normal, but they should be allowed to remain in place until they fall off on their own. Scrubbing can cause them to fall off, leaving your incision vulnerable to opening when it should be closing.

When you are finished with your shower, gently pat your incision and allow to air dry completely before covering with a bandage or clothing. A wet incision is a breeding ground for bacteria and can also lead to softening of the skin which decreases the strength of the skin.

If you cannot shower, it is best to take a “sponge bath” rather than bathe for the first few weeks if you cannot bathe without soaking your incision for an extended period of time.

Whether you are standing in the shower or taking a sponge bath, the daily bath is meant to decrease the chances of infection due to bacteria that live on your skin. Cleanliness is key to preventing infection.


Inspecting Your Surgical Incision

You should plan to inspect your incision daily until it closes completely and your surgeon indicates that you have finished healing from your surgery. When you finish with your shower, take the time to pat your incision dry or allow it to air dry.

Some redness along the incision line is normal and should diminish as the incision heals. Increasing redness, especially if the incision feels warm, can indicate the beginnings of an infection. Some redness is normal, the key here is that the redness is worsening instead of improving and that the skin is hot.

Drainage from the wound may also indicate an infection. In the first few days after surgery, there may be a very small amount of clear fluid that leaks from the incision, but bloody, green/yellow, chunky, thick or white pus or drainage usually indicates infection and should be reported to your surgeon.

A healthy incision will be well-approximated, meaning that the edges meet neatly and closely. Gaps in your incision should be reported to your surgeon as they can grow and become a serious complication if ignored.


How to Brace Your Surgical Incision

Incisions, especially abdominal incisions, cause a weakness in the skin. While a cough, sneeze, lifting objects and “bearing down” to have a bowel movement are normal activities, they can cause problems. To prevent your incision from opening, a serious medical problem known as dehiscence, it is important to brace your incision.

In the first weeks after surgery, hold a pillow gently but firmly over your incision when you sneeze, cough, or vomit. This will help prevent pain and strengthen the incision temporarily to avoid tearing your stitches and having your incision gape open.

If you are feeling constipated after surgery it is important that you speak to your surgeon about the issue if you are unable to get the problem under control by increasing fiber in your diet and taking over the counter constipation treatments.

Straining to have a bowel movement, like sneezing or coughing, can cause the incision to open. This is not a common complication, but it is one that is easily prevented by bracing your incision when rising from a seated position to standing, sneezing, coughing, or lifting.


Preventing Injury to Your Incision

Part of good incision care is preventing an injury to your incision. Here are three ways to avoid hurting your surgical wound:

  • Avoid lifting heavy objects. You should receive guidelines on how much you are permitted to lift after your surgery, but plan on avoiding lifting any object heavier than 5 pounds for the two weeks immediately following your procedure.
  • Avoid sunlight. Sunlight on your incision can increase the appearance of scars once your wound has healed. It is also very painful to have a sunburn on a healing surgical incision.
  • Avoid dirty activities. Any "dirty" activity that includes mud or other opportunities to get an incision dirty, such as mud run obstacle courses, mud baths, swimming in a pond, and similar activities need to be avoided until the wound has healed.

A Word From Verywell

Taking the time to properly wash your hands and care for your incision on a regular basis may be the single most important thing you do during your surgical recovery to prevent infection and to make sure your recovery is brief. A wound infection can, most of the time, be prevented with these two simple steps.

In other cases where the infection could not be prevented, noticing the problem when it first begins will be far more likely when you are performing routine wound care as directed by your surgeon.

3 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. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Surgical wound care - closed.

  2. Wound Care Centers. Dehisced wounds.

  3. American Academy of Family Physicians. Caring for your incision after surgery.

Additional Reading
  • 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.