How to Care for a Drain After Surgery

If you've never had a surgical drain, it's no wonder why you may fear it; it's an unknown. So it may help to know this: The device can speed healing, prevent complications, and reduce your post-surgery pain.

Even better, perhaps: It's a low-maintenance device, and caring for it should be simple and straightforward.

This article explains how there are many types of surgical drains and how most of them do not cause pain, though they can be uncomfortable. Caring for a drain requires some common sense methods. Most drains are removed at the doctor's office.

Tube coming from a patient's surgical drain
Mathisa_s / Getty Images

Types of Surgical Drains

A surgical drain is meant to keep fluid or infectious material from building up at or near the site of a surgical procedure. It does exactly what it sounds like it does: drains blood and fluids away and out of the body, just like a plumbing drain.

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 bulb can be secured near the bandage or attached to your clothes with a safety pin.

The type of drain you will get depends on the type of surgery you will have, what part of your body the surgery will be performed on, and the personal preference of your surgeon. You may have one drain or several, depending on the nature of the problem.

Discomfort or Pain

By and large, drains are not painful to have in place. But they can cause discomfort, depending on how big they are and where they are placed.

Typically, the discomfort is mild. But it's fair to say that the larger the drain, the greater the likelihood that it will cause some pain.

For example, after heart bypass surgery, many people report that chest tubes were more uncomfortable than the chest incision.

If pain occurs, use Tylenol (acetaminophen) rather than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen), which can promote bleeding.

Caring for a Surgical Drain

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 dislodged. Some drains come loose when too much weight is placed on them.

Some people use bandage tape that can be purchased at a drug store to keep the drain near the incision site and securely in place.

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's safe to do so. Take the time to inspect the area around the drain for signs of infection, just as you would a surgical incision.

You may need to empty the drain twice a day—and more often if it gets full.

Changing the Dressing

Your doctor should tell you how often he expects you to change the dressing. He may even want you to document the times you do this and note the color of the fluid.

Good drain care is similar to good incision care. Wash your hands before the following steps:

  • Remove the dressing from around the drain.
  • Clean the skin around the drain site with soap and water. Use a cotton swab.
  • Wait for the area to dry before putting on a new dressing. Follow the specific instructions from your doctor (since they can vary).
  • Wash your hands again with soap and water.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Call your healthcare provider immediately if you experience:

  • Chills
  • Cloudy, pus-like fluid with a foul odor
  • Fever of 100.5 degrees
  • Redness, swelling, heat, or tenderness at the incision site
  • The tube falling out or the stitches holding it in place coming loose

When the Drain Is Removed

Drains are removed when no further surgery or additional procedures are needed. In general, a drain is removed when there is less than 30 cubic centimeters (1 ounce) of fluid for two straight days or three weeks after surgery, whichever comes first.

How the drain goes out largely depends on how it went in. It may leave the body through the surgical incision. Or a new, 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. In this case, the sutures are cut and the drain is gently pulled out.

This procedure may be done by a physician, a nurse, or other healthcare provider, 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 with no effects.

Having a drain removed usually 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 the air.

Stitches usually are not needed. But it's a good idea to avoid swimming or soaking in a tub for several days.

Recap

Expect that your surgical drain will be removed at your doctor's office. It's one less task you will be responsible for.

Summary

Even mildly squeamish people have been known to balk over having a surgical drain in place. But sometimes seeing a drain in action can change their mind. After surgery, fluids continue to pool near the surgical area. Instead of letting the fluids stay there—and risk infection—a surgical drain ushers the fluids out. You have to be careful while a surgical drain is in place, but many people are glad to see their healing progress reflected in the changing color of the fluids. They typically go from red (representing blood) to clear.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a Jackson Pratt (JP) drain?

    This common drain removes excess fluid that builds up at a surgical site. It's made up of a long, thin tube attached to a small hand-held bulb used to suction out the fluid. Generally, in the first few days after surgery, it is emptied every four to six hours until the amount of fluid decreases.

  • What does the fluid consist of?

    The fluid drained from a wound after surgery is called exudate—liquid that drains from an open wound. It consists of fluid and leukocytes, which are cells that make up the immune system. Leukocytes promote healing. Expect the fluid in the drain to change colors as the wound heals. It may go from red (and bloody), to pink and then to light yellow and clear.

  • How long does a surgical drain stay on after surgery?

    In many cases after surgery, the drain is removed when there is less than 30 cubic centimeters (1 ounce) of fluid being drained for two days or when three weeks have passed.

  • Can I shower with a drain?

    Yes, as long as your surgeon or primary caregiver gives you permission. Attach the drain to a soft nearby item, like a cloth strap, to prevent the drain from tugging at your skin. Too much strain on the drain can cause it to become dislodged.

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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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