Surgical Wound Care Basics

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Talk to your healthcare provider or team if you notice any of these signs, or if you have other questions while you recover from surgery.3

Doctor wrapping a surgical incision

How do I best take care of my wound at home?

Having a clean area set up for when you change your bandages is an important part of wound care. It is best not to allow children or pets in this space, as they can bring in dirt and germs. Lay down a large sterile pad to create a clean area to set down your supplies. Here are some key tips to help lower your risk of infection.

Avoid Stress

First, take off any jewelry you might be wearing. Using warm water and soap, scrub your hands and wrists (including under your fingernails) very well for at least 15-30 seconds. Rinse, and then dry your hands and wrists with a clean towel.

Wash your hands

First, take off any jewelry you might be wearing. Using warm water and soap, scrub your hands and wrists (including under your fingernails) very well for at least 15-30 seconds. Rinse, and then dry your hands and wrists with a clean towel.

Organize your supplies

  • Have the following supplies ready: gauze/bandages, ointments, medical tape and single-use gloves.
  • Open wrappers and ointment tubes ahead of time to minimize the amount you touch them with your gloves.
  • Use cotton, swabs or applicators when touching your wound.

Carefully remove the tape from the old dressing

  • Try not to touch your wound as you take off the old dressing or apply ointment to the surface.
  • Slowly peel the tape, pulling up and toward the wound. If it is too hard to peel, wet it and try again (unless your healthcare provider tells you to keep it dry).
  • After you have taken off the old dressing, throw it out in a plastic bag. Then take off your gloves, put them in the plastic bag and wash your hands again.1

How do I check and protect my wound?

During every stage of healing, check your wound closely every day for the six signs of infection.

Healthy wound vs infected wound

The six stages of infection

Stage 1 of wound infection

1. Any Changes

If your wound is getting any bigger, it may mean that the infection is spreading to nearby tissue.

Stage 2 of an infected wound

2. Redness or streaking

Streaking–or red lines on the skin–could indicate a rapidly spreading infection that may require immediate medical attention.

Stage 3 of an infection: swelling around an incision

3. Swelling

There may be swelling around the wound at first, but this should decrease over time. An infected wound will become more swollen over time.

Stage 4 of wound infection: pain

4. Pain

A wound may hurt in the beginning, but the pain should lessen as you heal. However, an infected wound may become even more painful and tender. If this is the case for your wound, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

Stage 5 of an infected wound: warmth and tenderness

5. Warmth and tenderness

The area around an infected wound will be tender and slightly warm to the touch.

Stage 6 of wound infection: discharge, pus or odor

6. Discharge, pus or odor

While some discharge is to be expected with a new wound, if it starts to increase or if you smell an odor, it may be infected. Contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible.2

What is the best type of bandage for me to use?

Nonstick pads and rolled gauze help keep your bandage in place, and your wound clean, dry and protected. Ask your healthcare provider if your bandages need to be soaked in any kind of solution before applied to the wound, or if they should be applied dry.4

How often should I change my bandage?

Generally, bandages are changed once in the morning and once in the evening, but this can vary.

If there is a lot of oozing fluid during the first few days, your healthcare provider may recommend changing it more often.5

Can I bathe or shower?

If your healthcare provider gives you the OK, use a waterproof bandage to cover your wound so it does not get wet. Be sure to change to a clean bandage after the shower.

If your healthcare provider advises against it, ask what you can do to keep the wound and surrounding area clean.6

Should I apply any kind of medicine to my wound?

Your healthcare provider may recommend that you treat your wound with an oral antibiotic or a topical antibiotic ointment.7


  1. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/surgery/Pages/getting-back-to-normal.aspx(link is external)
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792763(link is external)
  3. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/surgery-what-to-expect-after-surgery(link is external)
  4. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/incision-care-after-surgery-topic-overview(link is external)
  5. http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/emergencies/bleeding.html(link is external)
  6. http://www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/patient_education/pepubs/postop.pdf(link is external)
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1422623