How to take care of your surgical wound

profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
07 February 2023
Next review due February 2026

Caring for a surgical wound is important to lower your risk of infection, and ensure your wound heals in the best way possible. It’s important to follow the individual advice you’re given after your operation or procedure. Here is some general information about caring for a surgical wound.

doctor checking up on patient

What is a surgical wound?

A surgical wound is a cut made to your skin and tissues during an operation. Usually, after an operation, a surgeon secures the edges of the cut. This is called primary wound healing. They may do this with:

  • stitches (sutures) or staples (metal clips) – stitches may be dissolvable so will disappear, usually over a few weeks. Non-dissolvable stitches or staples need to be removed by a nurse or doctor and this may be up to 14 days after your operation
  • adhesive strips - strips that stick to your skin which usually come off by themselves after a week to 10 days
  • skin glue – used for small wounds, the glue usually peels off by itself in about two weeks

The method your surgeon uses will depend on where your wound is, how big it is and how strong the closure needs to be.

Sometimes, it’s best for your surgeon to leave the wound open to heal up by itself (secondary healing). If you have this type of wound, your surgeon will tell you how to look after it.

Your surgeon may put a temporary surgical drain in place during your operation. This is a thin tube that drains blood and fluids from the site of your operation so that they don’t collect there. The fluids may drain into a dressing, bag, or container that can be emptied. You may have the drain removed at hospital or need to go home with it left on.Your nurse will tell you how to look after it and the plan for how it will be removed.

It’s important to take good care of your surgical wound, including keeping dressings dry. It’s usually possible to have a shower about 48 hours after surgery, but this will depend on what operation you had.

Should a surgical wound be covered?

It’s not always necessary to have a dressing on a surgical wound. If you do need one, its purpose of a surgical dressing is to:

  • absorb any fluid weeping from your wound
  • provide the best conditions for healing
  • protect the area from irritation or infection as your wound heals

Your surgeon or nurse will tell you how and when you should change or remove the dressing. In general, it’s good not to change a dressing too often.

What helps surgical wounds heal faster?

In healthy people, most wounds heal well enough within a couple of weeks to no longer need the support of stitches, staples, adhesive strips or glue. This can vary depending on the type of operation you had.

To help your surgical wound heal faster, be careful to follow all the instructions your surgeon or nurse gives you. These will be tailored to the type and location of your wound.

How healthy you are can also affect how well your wound heals. If you smoke, try to quit – preferably well before your operation. Smoking makes wounds heal more slowly. You should also make sure you eat a healthy balanced diet. This will give your body the nutrients it needs to heal. And if you have diabetes, be careful about controlling your blood sugar level. High blood sugar can slow down wound healing.

What should I do if my wound becomes infected?

Your doctors and nurses will do everything they can to prevent your wound from becoming infected. But it’s important that you know what to look out for after you go home.

Signs of an infected wound include:

  • the wound becoming more painful
  • redness in and around the wound
  • leaking of blood or pus from the wound
  • swelling of the wound – an abscess (a collection of pus) may have formed
  • an unpleasant smell coming from the wound
  • having a raised temperature

If there’s a bit of oozing from your wound within the first few hours, that’s nothing to worry about. But if you have any of these symptoms or are worried about how your wound looks, contact your GP surgery. Or contact the hospital directly if you have been told to do so.

If you get a surgical wound infection , you’ll usually be treated with a course of antibiotics. Very occasionally, you may need to have further surgery.

With the right attention, most wounds heal well over time. Usually, the remaining scar will fade and become less visible over time.

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profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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