What to Do if You Get Sick Before Your Surgery

For many people, preparing for surgery is a process that may take weeks or even months before the procedure is actually done. There may be tests and more tests, a search for the right surgeon or a second opinion, and decisions to make about where to have a surgery done.

Your careful planning is meant to ensure the best possible health outcomes. Yet it can be upended entirely if you start to feel ill prior to your procedure.

This article discusses the types of illness that may delay surgery, as well as those that likely won't. It will help you to know what to tell your surgeon about any symptoms they'll need to know about.

Conditions that may lead to rescheduling surgery.

Verywell / Laura Porter

Illness May or May Not Delay Surgery

Across the world, surgeries are canceled every day. A literature review that looked at these events across 10 years found that 18% of planned procedures were canceled on the day they were meant to occur. Change in patient health was the cause in nearly one out of every four such events.

In some cases, your illness may be related to the reason for your surgery. For example, you may be having severe chest pain due to coronary artery disease. If you are scheduled for open-heart surgery to improve that condition, it would likely go on as planned.

On the other hand, if you are diagnosed with influenza the day before an elective surgery, there's a good chance it will need to be postponed. A respiratory infection or stomach flu might delay surgery too.

There are reasons why feeling unwell could lead to a canceled procedure. That said, there are also reasons why your health changes would give cause to move forward.

The decision also depends on how long an illness typically takes to resolve. Strep throat, for example, is no longer contagious after 24 hours of antibiotics. It might not delay surgery.

Usually, your surgeon will make a final decision on whether to move forward. They will consider factors such as how severe your illness is and what type of surgery you have planned.

When to Notify a Surgeon

If you are sick in the days leading up to surgery, be sure to tell your surgeon—and the sooner, the better. Only your surgeon can decide if your symptoms are severe enough to lead to a delay.

If you are experiencing a minor illness in the week prior to surgery, or a moderate to severe illness in the two weeks before surgery, notify your surgeon immediately.

You may think it makes sense to wait in the hopes of getting better in time, but keep in mind that you may be charged some fees for a surgery that's canceled at the last minute.

Recap

A change in your health, such as a case of the flu, may lead to a canceled surgery. In other cases, worsening symptoms may mean that there's all the more reason to move forward with surgery that's related to the condition. Tell your surgeon right away if you become ill within a week or two of your procedure date.

Conditions That May Delay Surgery

There are quite a few health conditions that might require a postponement of your surgery. Among them are several respiratory illnesses.

In particular, health issues that affect your breathing may lead to cancellation because they complicate the use of anesthesia needed during your procedure.

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma alone is not a reason to cancel surgery. However, any serious increase in asthma symptoms in the days or weeks leading up to surgery may lead to a delay until the problem improves.

People who have severe asthma symptoms ahead of their surgery are at a higher risk for complications from the procedure. Let your surgeon know right away if that's been the case prior to the planned date.

Breathing Problems

Breathing problems can lead to the delay or cancellation of a procedure. Patients who have general anesthesia are at increased risk for breathing difficulties, including pneumonia.

For that reason, pulmonary function tests may be done to make sure that the patient is breathing as well as possible. This is intended to reduce the risk of breathing problems after surgery.

A new diagnosis of a severe breathing problem may postpone surgery or lead to a canceled surgery. Temporary breathing issues that also may delay a procedure include:

Recap

Delayed surgeries are often caused by a breathing problem. In many cases, this is due to concern over how anesthesia will affect someone with respiratory issues. People with severe asthma are especially at risk of complications.

Contagious Illness

A contagious illness, such as chickenpox or measles, will usually delay your surgery. You can expect it to be postponed until you are no longer contagious, unless the procedure is so critical that it absolutely cannot wait.

Fever

A fever can lead to a delay in surgery, particularly if it is very high or unexplained. A low-grade temperature may not lead to a delay in surgery, but a severe fever will likely delay a procedure.

One study from Saudi Arabia found that fever, along with respiratory illness, was among the reasons for cancellation in 24% of all elective surgeries where the patient condition was the cause of the delay. Those rates were even higher during winter months, when fever-related infection was more likely.

Keep in mind that a delayed surgery is all the more likely when the reason for the fever is not known.

Infection

Infection in the week or two prior to surgery can be cause for delay, depending on the type.

A minor infection, such as a skin or urinary tract infection, is less likely to lead to a delay in your procedure. It's the major infections, such as sepsis or meningitis, that may cause your surgery to be delayed.

Influenza

A bout of influenza, or flu, can be the reason for a delay in your surgery. However, most cases of the flu will typically be over within a week. 

Serious complications of the flu are fairly rare, so most people with a case of the flu will see a brief delay before the procedure.

Recap

Fever or infection, including the flu, will likely lead to a canceled or rescheduled procedure. In some cases, the decision will depend on how critical is the surgery and how serious the infection.

Uncontrolled Diabetes

Uncontrolled diabetes can increase the risks of complication after surgery. High glucose, or blood sugar, levels can increase the risk of infections. They also may lead to slow wound healing and increased recovery times.

For this reason, problems with diabetes may lead to delayed surgery until your blood sugar is under better control.

Vomiting

Any vomiting symptom can be a cause for surgery delay. Vomiting during surgery can cause aspiration pneumonia, a serious complication.

Vomiting after surgery can cause other problems too. It may increase pain and put more stress on some types of incisions. This can make the recovery process more difficult.

One exception to the rule may be when the surgery is meant to correct the vomiting. That's more likely when the surgery is intended to correct a digestive tract disorder.

Summary

There are a few possible outcomes when you get sick before a scheduled surgery. There may be no delay, for example, with a minor infection.

There also may be no delay when the changes in your health are a part of the condition that the surgery is meant to correct.

Often, though, your procedure may need to be postponed if you have symptoms like vomiting or trouble breathing. Be sure to let your surgeon know about your illness while there's still plenty of time for them to make a decision about whether to proceed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you have surgery if you have a cold?

    It depends on your symptoms. Respiratory infections may make it harder for you to get enough oxygen while under anesthesia. Call your surgeon's office before the procedure. They can help you decide whether it's safe to continue with the surgery or if it makes more sense to wait.

  • Can you have surgery if you have a sore throat?

    It depends on the cause of your sore throat and how urgent your surgery is. Let your surgeon know if you've had a sore throat in the two weeks before your surgery. Mild sore throats may be OK, while a severe infection may be a reason to postpone.

10 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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