Pus In a Wound After Surgery

What Exactly is Pus?

Surgery Images, Surgery Patients Images,
Abdominal Surgery Incision. © Getty Images/Barrett Forster

Pus, also known as purulent drainage, is a general term for a collection of thick, often white fluid that accumulates around the source of an infection.  This can occur around many types of infections, but can be particularly alarming after surgery.  

After a surgical procedure where an incision is made is is possible to have pus coming from the incision if an infection is present.  While not all drainage is pus, drainage is often alarming because it can signal the presence of an infection, and can look very strange coming from a surgical incision.  

Pus Explained

Pus is made up of dead tissue, white blood cells, and damaged cells. Pus is present when the body begins to fight an infection, sending white blood cells to the source of the problem in order to stop the germs from infecting more tissue. While the presences of pus is a good thing in that it indicates that the body is working to fight off the infection, it is never a good thing to have an infection. 

Pus is generally white or a yellow-white color, but it can be greenish, blood-tinged, blue (in rare cases) or even a brown color. It can also have a foul odor. 

Pus can be present in a surgical incision that is becoming infected and is a sign that further treatment is needed.  At the very least, a call to the surgeon is absolutely necessary, as a surgical infection can become serious quickly.  When an infection spreads and reaches the bloodstream, a condition referred to as sepsis, the infection can become life-threatening.

Drainage From a Surgical Incision

While drainage from a surgical incision can be cause for medical intervention, it is important to keep in mind that there are many types of drainage, ranging from normal to serious. It is absolutely possible to have drainage from a wound that may look like pus or a sign of infection, but is normal drainage.  The only way to tell the difference is to seek medical attention, especially if the drainage is from a surgical wound.  

Foul smelling drainage from a surgical incision, in particular, should lead to notifying the surgeon.

Abscess Explained

If an infection is present in the body, there may be a small quantity of pus, or there may be a significant buildup of this material in a wound.  A large collection may not be visible, and could be under the skin or deep inside an incision. A collection of infectious drainage that does not leak out of the body, a condition called an abscess, can happen almost anywhere in the human body.

A common example of purulent drainage is acne, where "white heads" are typically very small abscesses.  The same type of collection of infectious drainage can be found in very large quantities if an infection is severe or goes for a long period of time without treatment.  This type of abscess can start with something as simple as an infected tooth, an infected surgical incision or even a boil on the skin.

Treatment of a Wound With Pus

Resist the urge to scrub a surgical wound with pus coming from it. While you might want to get the area as clean as possible, you will likely do more harm than good by removing the drainage before it can be seen by a provider.  It is also very irritating to a wound to be scrubbed or to have harsh cleansers used. If you must clean the site, or an appointment is not available immediately, gently wash the area with warm water and a gentle cleanser, rinsing well.  Do not use anything that is too harsh to use on a baby's skin during this process.

 First, notify the surgeon that an infection is present in the surgical site.  Do not clean the site or try to remove the pus until the surgeon has an opportunity to take a swab of the surgical site, if needed.  Once the swab is collected, you may require antibiotics, a change in your wound care regimen or both.  

The swab of the site is used to perform a wound culture to determine the nature of the infection and help in the selection of an antibiotic. Often, an antibiotic is initiated at the first sign of infection, but this may later be changed if the wound culture indicates another antibiotic may be more effective than the first.

A Word From Verywell

While some drainage is normal after a surgery, it can be difficult to tell with the naked eye whether drainage is a sign of infection or just fluid.  If you have drainage coming from a wound, call your surgeon and report the issue.  It is far better to call and find out that there is no need to worry than to ignore a problem and have it lead to a serious infection because it wasn't treated quickly.