How to Change a Surgical Bandage

Changing a bandage after surgery is not difficult. However, it is important that the dressing change be done correctly in order to protect an incision and prevent infection.

Unless your surgeon has given you specific instructions on when to change your bandage, plan to do it daily or more often if it is visibly dirty or wet. If it's difficult for you to do this on your own, ask for help.

Be sure you have access to soap and a sink and, if you are changing someone else's bandage, three set of gloves. Then follow the step-by-step instructions on how to properly change bandages after surgery covered here.

Person changing a surgical bandage

Science Photo Library / Getty Images


Wash Your Hands

Before you even reach for supplies, you will need to wash your hands thoroughly.

Most people think they wash their hands properly, but most do not. For example, to get your hands truly clean, you need to lather them with soap for no less than 20 seconds.

Consider reviewing proper hand-washing techniques before you begin.


Put on Gloves

If you are changing a loved one's bandage, it's important to wear gloves. This protects both of you.

Put on a clean pair of sterile gloves after washing your hands.


Remove the Surgical Bandage

Pull the skin away from the bandage instead of pulling the bandage from the skin. This can minimize pain and is gentler on the tender area surrounding the incision.

If you notice redness in the area of the skin that was taped, you (or the person you are helping) may have a sensitivity to the tape itself. Paper tape has less adhesive than other types of bandage tapes. While it doesn’t provide as strong a seal, it may be less irritating.

If you are wearing gloves, dispose of them once you're done.


Wash Your Hands Again

Now that the dirty bandage has been removed, it's time to wash your hands again. This helps remove bacteria that may have transferred from the dirty bandage and is extremely important in helping prevent infection.

If you are going to shower before replacing the bandages on your own incision, you can wash your hands in the shower before you clean your incision.

Put on new gloves once you're done washing (if needed).


Clean the Incision

Cleaning your incision can be done with soap and water. This can be done in the shower or at a sink. You do not have to use antibacterial soap.

Pat the incision dry or allow it to air dry. Do not put a bandage on a damp incision unless you are changing a “wet to dry” dressing, which has its own method not discussed here.

If you are providing this care for a surgery patient who cannot move to the bathroom, be sure to use a fresh and clean washcloth to gently clean the incision and another clean cloth to pat the incision dry.

Do not scrub the area, remove scabs, or attempt to clean the sutures or staples.


Check the Incision

After you've cleaned the incision and allowed it to dry, it's time to check for signs of infection and to make sure the incision is staying closed.

An incision may be red, but it should become less so as it heals. It should also be "well approximated," meaning that the sides join together neatly without gaps. It should not look as though it is beginning to pull apart.

At this time, check for any blood, pus, or other fluid draining from the incision. Contact your healthcare provider if you notice changes to your incision, you are concerned about drainage, or the wound is not showing signs of improvement.

If you are wearing gloves, throw them away once you are done with this step.


Wash Your Hands a Third Time

Before you begin applying a new bandage, wash your hands again.

Another round of washing your hands helps prevent any material that was cleansed from the incision from being reintroduced into the area. This is especially important if an incision is showing any signs of infection.

If you are assisting someone, put on a new pair of gloves before moving on.


Put on a New Bandage

You can now place a clean bandage on the incision. If a surgeon has prescribed any special ointments or treatments, this is the time to apply them. Do not use any lotions, powders, or cleansers that have not been approved by your healthcare team.

Open the sterile bandage and place it directly on the incision. If possible, avoid setting the bandage on another surface like the sink or a table. This will help prevent contaminating the dressings.

If you must set the bandage aside after opening the sterile wrapper, try to use the clean inside of the paper wrapper to keep the bandage from touching other surfaces.

Position the bandage over the incision with at least a half inch of extra bandage on each side. Tape all four sides to seal it in place. You may need to use a few extra pieces of tape if the bandage is thick.

If your incision has drainage, you may need to place several layers of bandages and plan on changing it more often. This is also true if you have a surgical drain in place. 


Dispose of Old Bandage Properly

Throw away the old bandage. If it is bloody or there is infectious drainage seeping from the wound, you may want to wrap the bandage in a plastic bag before disposing of it.

Pets can be drawn to soiled bandages. If you have a pet, you may want to dispose of the bandage outside or in a container with a lid.

Do not flush bandages; it could clog the plumbing.

Once you're done, throw away your gloves if you are wearing any.


Wash Your Hands One Final Time

Now that your incision is covered with a new bandage and the dirty one thrown away, wash your hands one last time.

This last wash ensures you can go about your day without spreading any germs to things you come in contact with.


Changing your bandages after surgery is an important part of the healing process. It's important to do it properly in order to avoid infection.

By performing tasks in the right order and washing your hands throughout the process, you can help your incision stay clean and reduce risks of infection.

4 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. MedlinePlus. Surgical wound care - closed.

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Study shows most people are spreading dangerous bacteria around the kitchen and don't even realize it.

  3. Smith SM, Zirwas MJ. Nonallergic reactions to medical tapes. Dermatitis. 2015;26(1):38-43. doi:10.1097/DER.0000000000000098

  4. Draelos ZD, Rizer RL, Trookman NS. A comparison of postprocedural wound care treatments: do antibiotic-based ointments improve outcomes?. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2011;64(3 Suppl):S23-9. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2010.11.010

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.