How to Care for a Drain After Surgery

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 drain can also reduce pain after surgery.

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.

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

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

Types of Surgical Drains

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 several, depending on the nature of the problem.

Discomfort or Pain

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. After heart bypass surgery, many people report that chest tubes are 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 removed. Some drains can be accidentally removed when they have too 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 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.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Call your healthcare provider immediately if you experience:

  • Fever and chills
  • Redness, swelling, heat, and tenderness at the incision site
  • Cloudy, pus-like fluid with a foul odor

It is 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.

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, 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 safely.

Generally speaking, a drain can be 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.

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 are usually not needed, but you should avoid swimming or soaking in a tub for two days.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a JP drain?

    A Jackson Pratt (JP) drain is a tool used to remove 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 is the fluid being drained after surgery?

    The fluid drained from a wound after surgery is called exudate. It consists of fluid and leukocytes, which are cells that make up the immune system. The leukocytes are sent to the injury to promote healing.

  • How long does a surgical drain stay after surgery?

    In many cases after surgery, it is safe to fully remove the drain when there is less than 30 cubic centimeters (1 ounce) of fluid being drained for two days, or when three weeks have passed. If you are still unsure when to remove a drain, ask your doctor or surgeon.

  • Can I shower with a drain?

    As long as your doctor gives you permission, then yes, you can shower with a drain in place. Attach the drain to a soft nearby item, like a cloth strap, to prevent the drain from tugging at your skin. Too much strain can cause the drain to be removed by accident.

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