What Is a Surgical Drain?

How to Care For Your Surgical Drain at Home

scalpel image
A Surgical Scalpel. Photo: © Harrison Eastwood/Getty Images

What Is a Surgical Drain?

You may have been told you that you will have a surgical drain in place after a procedure, or perhaps that you need to have a drain placed to help treat a collection of fluid or to treat an infection, such as an abscess. Having a drain may sound scary or intimidating, but the device can actually speed healing and help prevent complications.

A surgical drain is placed to keep fluid or infectious material from building up at the site of your surgery. The drain does exactly what it sounds like: it drains fluid away and out of the body, just like a plumbing drain.

A drain can be placed during surgery or as an outpatient procedure. Outside of surgery, drains are often placed in interventional radiology, and the doctor placing the drain uses an x-ray machine or another type of scan to make sure the drain is in the appropriate place.

There are many types of drains, ranging from chest tubes that keep fluid from accumulating around the heart after open heart surgery, to small bulb type drains that apply gentle suction. The type of drain that is used depends on the type of surgery, the preference of the surgeon and the site of the surgery. There may be one drain, or there may be several, depending on the nature of the potential problem.

For the most part, drains are not painful to have in place, but they can cause discomfort depending on the size and location. Typically, the pain is mild, but the larger the drain, the greater the likelihood that it will cause pain. In fact, after heart bypass surgery, many patients report that the chest tubes are more uncomfortable than the healing chest incision.

Removing a Surgical Drain

Drains are designed to be removed without the need for further surgery or additional procedures. They may leave the body through the surgical incision, or a small incision may be made specifically for the drain itself. The drain may have sutures holding it in place to prevent it from being accidentally dislodged. When there is no longer drainage coming out, or the drain is no longer needed, it can be removed by cutting the sutures and gently pulling the drain out. This procedure may be done by a physician or a nurse, depending on the type of drain that is in place and the reasons for the drain. If any resistance is felt while removing the drain, the procedure is stopped until it can be performed safely.

Generally, having a drain removed does not hurt, but it can feel rather odd as the tubing slides out of the body. The incision is then covered with a dressing or left open to air, stitches are not usually necessary to close the drain site. In some cases, the drain will come out of the surgical incision itself, which will continue to heal and close after the drain is removed.

Caring For a Surgical Drain at Home

If you are sent home with a drain, be sure to protect it, making sure it doesn't dangle freely or in such a way that it could be accidentally removed. Some drains can be accidentally removed when they have to much weight pulling on them, such as the collection device used to hold drainage. Some people use bandage tape that can be purchased at the drug store to keep the drain near their incision and prevent it from accidentally being removed. If you do this, be careful when removing the tape so that you do not accidentally remove the drain.

Caring for the drain is very much like performing good incision care. Wash your hands before touching your incision or the drain. Cleanse the area around the drain gently in the shower with a mild soap and rinse well. Avoid bathing in a tub when you have an incision that has not completely healed or a drain in place unless your surgeon says it is safe to do so. Take the time to inspect the area around the drain for signs of infection, just as you would a normal surgical incision.

It is also important to pay attention to the type and amount of drainage that is coming out, it may be bloody, a clear serous fluid, or it may be colored drainage that indicates infection. Abnormal types of drainage should be reported to your surgeon.

In most cases, the drain will be removed by your surgeon during an office visit once it is no longer needed.

A Word From Verywell

A drain may seem intimidating, but in reality they are typically low maintenance and temporary.  Keep the site clean, treating as you would a baby's bottom--you want to keep it clean and dry but no harsh cleansers should be used.  Be gentle with the drain, taking care to avoid removing it accidentally and avoid having the weight of the drainage collection device dangling in such a way that might pull the drain tubing out.

A drain should be given regular and routine attention, and something should be done if there are any signs of infection in either the surgical wound or the drainage in the drain collection device.  If you see redness of the skin, if the drainage has a bad smell or alarming colors, call your surgeon and report the issue. 

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