Why It Is Important to Cough After Surgery

Coughing probably doesn't seem like a big deal in your day-to-day life. You feel the urge to cough, and then you cough. You may not even think about it because it's second nature.

That may change after having surgery. Coughing is not as easy when you are recovering after a procedure. It isn't painless, either.

An illustration about how to brace your incision when coughing after surgery

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz


After surgery, coughing can help prevent pneumonia and keep the lungs clear. Pneumonia can be life-threatening after surgery.

Many patients avoid coughing because it's so painful. But it's vital that you cough enough to prevent lung complications. Coughing clears the lungs of normal secretions, infectious material like pus, and foreign objects. It keeps the lungs open and expanded.


Coughing after surgery helps prevent pneumonia by helping you breathe deeply. It expands the lungs and clears secretions that may have built up when you were on a ventilator, intubated, or under anesthesia. 

For patients who avoid coughing or are too weak to cough, it may be necessary to use suction to clear the lungs in the hospital. Coughing is preferable and more effective than suction.

How to Cough After Surgery

When you feel the urge to cough, brace your incision if you have had a chest or abdominal surgery. Take your hands or a small pillow and hug it to the wound with gentle but firm pressure. Bracing helps support your incision and reduces stress on the site.

If you don't have a pillow, you can use your hands to brace the incision. The pillow is mainly for comfort.

Even if your incision is not on your chest or abdomen, bracing may help with pain control. Crossing your legs can also brace the incision if your surgery was in the genital or rectal areas.


If the incision is on your chest, such as after open-heart surgery, hug a pillow to your chest directly over the incision. If you had abdominal surgery, do the same over the abdominal incision while slightly tensing the stomach muscles. This simple act reduces pressure on the wound.

Preventing Dehiscence

Bracing your incision is important for several reasons. Holding pressure on your incision decreases the stress on it, which can decrease the pain.

Supporting your incision can also keep it from pulling apart or opening. This complication is called dehiscence. It can become very serious.

During your routine incision care, look for signs that the incision is pulling apart or gaps are forming. Small openings may not be an issue, but they can widen if the wound is stressed. For example, a person with a cold may cough frequently, putting extra stress on an abdominal incision. This increases the risk of opening. The same applies to sneezing. Bracing will help protect your incision and minimize the pain.

Never stifle a sneeze. Doing so may tear blood vessels in the throat, damage the eardrum and inner ear, or even trigger an aneurysm. Simply brace the incision, tense the surrounding muscles, and sneeze.

Coughing and Breathing Exercises

Coughing and deep breathing (CDB) is a technique used to help keep the lungs clear during the first few days or weeks after surgery. The exercises are an effective tool to prevent pneumonia and atelectasis, a lung condition where the lungs don't expand the way they should.

The technique varies slightly from place to place, but the general idea is the same. To perform a CDB exercise:

  1. Take a deep breath, hold for several seconds, and slowly exhale.
  2. Repeat five times.
  3. Brace your incision, and attempt to cough deeply.
  4. Repeat the entire procedure every one to two hours.


Coughing after surgery is an important part of your post-surgical care. It clears the lungs of any mucus that has built up and helps prevent pneumonia and other lung complications.

Still, coughing when you have a surgical wound can be painful. To make it easier, place your hands or a pillow over the incision to brace it. Then tighten the muscles around the wound and cough. Bracing not only lessens the pain of coughing, but it can also keep your wound from opening up.

In addition to coughing, it's a good idea to practice deep breathing exercises every couple of hours in the days after surgery. Like coughing, these exercises will help keep your lungs clear.

A Word From Verywell

As simple as coughing seems, it can prevent major complications after surgery.

You may want to avoid coughing because of the pain, but that could lead to pneumonia. At the same time, coughing without bracing first can open an incision and cause serious problems.

If you are caught off-guard and a cough or sneeze causes a rupture in your incision or sutures, seek medical help.

When to Call a Doctor

  • If you notice an opening in your incision, even a small one
  • If you notice blood after coughing
  • If coughing causes severe pain
  • If you cannot brace an incision because it is is too painful
  • If you feel too weak to cough or are not strong enough to cough effectively
  • If you have difficulty breathing or cannot catch your breath

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is coughing up phlegm after surgery normal?

    Coughing up phlegm or mucus after surgery is normal. It's a natural, vital way that the body gets rid of excess mucus in the lungs. If mucus is stuck in the lungs for too long, an infection can start. That's why it's important to regularly cough after surgery, even if it can be unpleasant.

  • What is dehiscence?

    Dehiscence, also called wound separation, is a surgical complication where the edges of a repaired wound begin to pull apart, either on their own or due to force. This is why the wound must be handled especially carefully during the first two weeks after surgery, when an incision can most easily come apart.

  • Why am I wheezing after surgery?

    If you are wheezing after surgery, you may have a lung (pulmonary) complication. A pulmonary complication can appear if you don't do deep breathing and coughing exercises in the first 48 hours after surgery. Other symptoms can include chest pain, fever, and a cough. If you experience these symptoms after surgery, contact your doctor.

  • Is sneezing dangerous after surgery?

    Only if it's done incorrectly. Try not to stifle a sneeze—holding it back can cause further issues, such as an incision opening. If you feel a sneeze on its way, brace the incision, tighten your abdominal muscles, and then sneeze.

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.
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  2. Chughtai M, Gwam CU, Mohamed N, et al. The epidemiology and risk factors for postoperative pneumonia. J Clin Med Res. 2017;9(6):466-475. doi:10.14740/jocmr3002w

  3. van Ramshorst GH, Nieuwenhuizen J, Hop WCJ, et al. Abdominal wound dehiscence in adults: development and validation of a risk model. World J Surg. 2010;34(1):20-27. doi:10.1007/s00268-009-0277-y

  4. Kelkar KV. Post-operative pulmonary complications after non-cardiothoracic surgery. Indian J Anaesth. 2015;59(9):599-605. doi:10.4103/0019-5049.165857

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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.