Incision Care

Overview

What is an incision?

An incision is a cut that’s made in your skin during a surgery or procedure. Sometimes, this is also called a surgical wound. The size, location and number of incisions can vary depending on the type of surgery.

What is a dressing and how often should dressings be changed?

A dressing is another name for a bandage. This bandage protects your incision, keeping the wound clean and creating an ideal environment for healing. Dressings should be changed according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.

Procedure Details

How are incision(s) closed?

Incisions can be closed in several ways, including:

  • Stitches (sutures).
  • Staples.
  • Tissue glue.
  • Steri-Strips™ (a special kind of adhesive tape).

A sterile dressing is usually placed over your closed incision to keep it clean and dry while the wound heals.

How do I care for my incisions after surgery?

It’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s directions when it comes to caring for your incisions after surgery. Taking care of your incision(s) as instructed promotes healing, reduces scarring and reduces your risk of infection.

Some general tips for incision care include:

  • Always wash your hands before and after touching your incisions.
  • Inspect your incisions and wounds every day for signs your healthcare provider has told you are red flags or concerning.
  • Look for any bleeding. If the incisions start to bleed, apply direct and constant pressure to the incisions. If you experience any bleeding, you should call your healthcare provider for instructions.
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing that might rub on your incisions.
  • Try not to scratch any itchy wounds. Your incisions might feel itchy as they heal — this is normal. Don’t scratch them. If the itchiness gets worse instead of better, call your healthcare provider.

A few general tips to keep in mind for different types of incision closures can include:

  • Staples and Stitches: You can wash or shower 24 hours after surgery unless you're directed otherwise by your healthcare provider. Clean the area with mild soap and water and gently pat dry with a clean cloth. Your provider will remove your staples when your wound is healed. Some stitches dissolve over time — others need to be removed by your provider. Dissolvable stitches may be held in place by strips of tape (Steri-Strips).
  • Steri-Strips: You can wash or shower with Steri-Strips in place. Clean the area with mild soap and water and gently pat dry with a clean towel or cloth. Do not pull, tug or rub Steri-Strips. The Steri-Strips will fall off on their own within two weeks. After two weeks, gently remove any remaining Steri-Strips. If the strips start to curl before it’s time to remove them, you can trim them.
  • Tissue glue: The glue should be kept dry and the incisions should be kept out of direct sunlight. The glue will dry out and fall off within five to 10 days.

What supplies are needed to change a dressing?

There are a few basic supplies you will need to change a dressing. These supplies include:

  • Gauze pads.
  • Disposable medical gloves (optional).
  • Surgical tape.
  • Plastic bag (for disposing of old dressing, tape, etc.).
  • Scissors.

What steps are involved in changing a dressing?

There are several steps involved in changing the dressing for your incision. Your healthcare provider will give you detailed instructions and will usually show you how to change your dressing. If you have any questions, call your provider.

Step 1: Prepare the area for changing a dressing.

First, you or the caregiver who is changing your dressing needs a clean surface to work on. Pets should be moved to a different room and your caregiver should remove any jewelry. Wash the surface where supplies will be with soap and water and cover with a clean cloth or paper towel.

Step 2: Removing the old dressing.

First, you’ll prepare your new dressing. Open the gauze package(s) without touching the gauze. Next, cut new tape strips. Set aside.

To remove the old dressing:

  1. Wash your hands by wetting them down, adding soap and washing for 30 seconds (about the time it takes to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). Make sure to also clean under your nails.
  2. Rinse your hands well and dry them with a clean towel.
  3. Put on medical gloves (if available) and loosen the tape holding the dressing in place.
  4. Remove the old dressing. Unless your doctor has said to remove the dressing dry, you can wet it if it sticks to the wound to help remove it. Throw the old dressing and dirty medical gloves into a plastic bag.
Step 3: Cleaning and rinsing the incision.

If you are showering, the incision will be cleaned during your shower. You can apply the dressing after your shower as instructed by your healthcare provider. If you aren’t showering, you should flush the incision as instructed by your healthcare provider.

Always inspect your incisions for signs of infection.

Step 4: Applying a new dressing.
  • If your surgeon prescribed a topical ointment, apply a very thin layer of the ointment to the incision.
  • Hold a clean, sterile gauze pad by a corner and place it over the incisions. (This is the gauze that you opened and set aside in step 2.)
  • Tape all four sides of the gauze pad. (This is the tape that you already cut and set aside in step 2.)
  • Put all trash in the plastic bag, remove your gloves and add them to the trash bag.
  • Seal the plastic bag and throw it away.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Wash any soiled laundry separately. Ask your provider if you should add bleach during the wash cycle.

What can I do to reduce the risk of infection?

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of infection when you’re healing, including:

  • Always wash your hands before and after touching your incisions.
  • Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • Follow your provider’s instructions about changing the dressing.
  • Avoiding removing the tape strips, picking at staples, tissue glue or stitches.
  • Keep your incisions dry (make sure the incision sites have been patted dry after washing).

Risks / Benefits

What are the signs of a possible infection in an incision?

It’s important to know the signs of an infection when you’re caring for an incision. Infection is always a risk of surgery. Keep track of any possible signs of an infection so that if you notice a possible infection it can quickly be treated.

Signs of a possible infection can include:

  • A wound that has thick, foul-smelling, opaque discharge. This is often a white or cream color.
  • A bad odor from the incision.
  • Opening of the incision line — it gets deeper, longer or wider.
  • Redness that goes beyond the basic edge of the incision — site should show signs of improvement and not getting more red.
  • Warmth, hardness, around the incision.
  • Fever (greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit or 38.4 degrees Celsius), sweating or chills.
  • Swings in blood sugar levels in a diabetic patient.

What are the general risk factors for developing an infection?

Patients at higher risk of developing an infection are those who have:

  • Diabetes.
  • A history of smoking.
  • Excess weight.
  • Poor nutrition.
  • Weak immune system (for example, a patient on chemotherapy or an elderly patient).
  • Recent emergency surgery or a long surgical procedure.

Recovery and Outlook

What are the limits on activity while an incision is healing?

Staying active improves healing by improving blood flow. After some types of surgery, your healthcare provider may recommend avoiding lifting, pulling, straining, exercise or sports for a month after surgery. Following these instructions will prevent opening of the incision line and promote healing.

How long does it take for an incision to heal?

Good incision care can help ensure that it heals well and infection doesn’t develop. In most cases, a surgical incision heals in about two weeks. More complex surgical incisions will take longer to heal. If you have other medical conditions or are taking certain medications, your healing time may differ.

When to Call the Doctor

When is it important to call the doctor?

Call the doctor if you experience:

  • Bleeding that does not stop with pressure.
  • If there is any sign of infection.

If you ever have questions or confusion about your incision care instructions, call your healthcare provider.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

When you’re caring for an incision, it’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions closely. If you have any questions about your instructions, reach out to your provider.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/06/2021.

References

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Caring for your Incision (http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/prevention-wellness/staying-healthy/first-aid/caring-for-your-incision-after-surgery.html) Accessed 10/232020.
  • Association for the Advancement of Wound Care. The ABCs of skin and wound care. (https://s3.amazonaws.com/aawc-new/memberclicks/ABC-brochure_03.30-for-Web1.pdf) Accessed 10/23/2020.
  • Merck Manual, Professional Version. Postoperative Care. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/special-subjects/care-of-the-surgical-patient/postoperative-care. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/special-subjects/care-of-the-surgical-patient/postoperative-care) Accessed 10/23/2020.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy