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Surgical wound care - closed

An incision is a cut through the skin made during surgery. It's also called a "surgical wound." Some incisions are small. Others are very long. The size of an incisions depend on the kind of surgery you had.

Closing a surgical wound can help your wound heal faster. To close your incision, your doctor used one of the following:

  • Stitches (sutures)
  • Clips
  • Staples
  • Skin glue

Proper wound care can help prevent infection and reduce scarring as your surgical wound heals.

Caring for your wound

When you come home after surgery, you may have a dressing on your wound. Dressings do several things, including:

  • Protect your wound from germs
  • Reduce the risk of infection
  • Cover your wound so that stitches or staples don't catch on clothing
  • Protect the area as it heals
  • Soak up any fluids that leak from your wound

You can leave your original dressing in place for up to 5 days, or as long as your doctor says. You will want to change it sooner if it becomes wet or soaked with blood or other fluids.

Don't wear tight clothing that rubs against the incision while it's healing.

Your doctor will tell you how often to change your dressing. Be prepared before starting the dressing change.

  • Clean your hands before touching the dressing. You may use an alcohol-based cleaner like Purell, or you may wash your hands with soap and warm water. Also clean under your nails. Rinse, then dry your hands.
  • Make sure you have all the supplies you need handy.

Remove the old dressing.

  • Carefully loosen the tape.
  • If the dressing sticks to the wound, moisten it gently and try again, unless your doctor instructed you to pull it off dry.
  • Clean your hands again after you take off the old dressing.

When you put on a new dressing:

  • Make sure your hands are clean.
  • Don't touch the inside of the dressing.
  • Don't apply antibiotic cream unless your doctor tells you to.
  • Place the dressing over your wound and tape down all four sides.
  • Put the old dressing, tape, and other trash in a plastic bag. Seal the bag and throw it away.

If you have non-dissolvable stitches or staples, your doctor will remove them within 3 to 21 days. Do not pull at your stitches or try to remove them on your own.

Bathing or showering

Your doctor will let you know when it's OK to bathe after surgery. Usually it's fine to bathe after 48 hours. Keep in mind:

  • Showers are better than baths because the wound doesn't soak in the water. Soaking your wound could cause it to reopen.
  • Remove the dressing before bathing unless told otherwise. Some dressings are waterproof, or your doctor may suggest covering the wound with a plastic bag to keep it dry.
  • If your provider gives the OK, gently rinse your wound with water as you bathe. Do not rub or scrub the wound.
  • Do not use soaps, lotions, powders, cosmetics, or any other skin care products on your wound.
  • Gently pat dry the area around your wound with a clean towel. Let the wound air dry.
  • Apply a new dressing.

At some point during the healing process, you won't need a dressing anymore. Your doctor will tell you when you can leave your wound uncovered.

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if there are any of the following changes around the incision:

  • More redness
  • More pain
  • Swelling
  • Bleeding
  • The wound is larger or deeper
  • The wound looks dried out or dark

You should also call your doctor if the drainage coming from or around the incision increases or becomes thick, tan, green, or yellow, or smells bad (pus).

Also call if your temperature is above 100 °F for more than 4 hours.

Alternative Names

Surgical incision care; Closed wound care


Leong M, Phillips LG. Wound Healing. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 7.

Update Date 6/10/2014 12:00:00 AM

Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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