8 Symptoms Never to Ignore After Surgery

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
  • Having surgery might provide you with a sense of relief—or a sense of apprehension about what comes next. While most people recover from surgery just fine, some people develop postsurgery complications that can range from minor (itching at the incision site) to serious (blood clot in the lungs). Be sure to follow your surgeon’s discharge instructions to reduce your risk of complications as you recover from surgery at home. And don’t ignore these signs and symptoms of potential postoperative complications.

  • 1
    Shortness of breath
    Man Having Chest Pains

    If you develop sudden, severe shortness of breath after surgery, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911. Any surgery that involves general anesthesia or makes it difficult for you to walk around can increase your risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It’s a blood clot that can dislodge and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. This serious condition requires emergency treatment. You can reduce your risk of DVT and pulmonary embolism by walking as much as your surgeon will allow after you get home from surgery.

  • 2
    Fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
    Worried senior woman comforting a sick elderly man

    Low-grade fever (around 100 degrees) is not abnormal after having surgery, but if you develop a high fever above 101 F you should call your surgeon. Fever can indicate several postsurgical complications, including an infected wound or pneumonia. Any of these conditions requires prompt medical intervention. While recovering at home, take your temperature (or your child’s) twice a day so you can inform your provider when a fever began to develop. Monitor your temperature this way for 2 to 3 weeks after surgery.

  • 3
    Pain that gets worse instead of better
    woman with stomach pain

    Any surgery may cause mild to moderate pain, especially if it involves a large incision. Pain should not necessarily be cause for worry. But if your postoperative pain is unexpectedly intense or hard to control with prescribed pain medicine, or if it gets worse over the course of days instead of better, then contact your surgeon. Pain can be a sign of underlying complications like infection that require prompt intervention. Don’t feel weak or embarrassed if your pain needs attention. Your surgeon will want to know about your pain level because controlling the discomfort aids the healing process.

  • 4
    Foul-smelling discharge from the incision
    Wound care

    Surgical incisions often produce sticky-type fluids that might be thin and clear or thicker and yellowish. This type of discharge likely is part of the normal healing process. However, if your incision oozes a greenish, foul-smelling discharge—especially if the area around the wound also is dark red or hot to the touch—call your surgeon. This type of discharge might indicate an infected wound that requires treatment. Call your surgeon’s office if you have any questions about whether your incisional discharge is normal or not.

  • 5
    Woman sitting on toilet with roll of toilet paper in her lap

    Several aspects of surgery can cause constipation for days or weeks after your procedure. General anesthesia, the type of surgery, and narcotic pain relievers all can lead to a sluggish bowel. If you have trouble passing stool during your recovery at home, try these techniques: drink prune juice, take a stool softener (docusate sodium) if approved by your surgeon, and increase your fluid intake—if your surgeon says it’s OK. It’s particularly important not to strain at stool after an abdominal surgery. If you remain constipated for more than a day or two, consult your surgeon for guidance.

  • 6
    Despondent man

    For reasons that remain unknown, certain types of surgery can provoke clinical depression in patients. Heart surgery, cancer procedures, and other types of operations can trigger a depressive episode weeks or months afterward. If you have undergone surgery within the past few months and begin to experience a depressed mood, consult your surgeon or primary care provider. Postsurgical depression should not be ignored because it could hinder your recovery. Most people find relief with medication or a few sessions with a therapist.

  • 7
    Persistent vomiting or diarrhea
    woman vomiting in toilet

    Some surgeries, such as an abdominal or breast procedure, can provoke postoperative nausea or diarrhea. Postsurgical medications like narcotic pain relievers also can cause vomiting or diarrhea. If you experience many episodes of vomiting or diarrhea for more than a day or two, call your surgeon’s office. Vomiting and diarrhea can cause you to become dehydrated and lead to more serious complications. Do not take over-the-counter medications for these conditions unless your surgeon recommends them. Instead, seek medical advice.

  • 8
    Incision that comes apart
    Man with bandaged stomach

    Most surgical incisions are held together by several layers of sutures (stitches), so don’t panic if you notice the skin layer of the incision slightly coming apart. But still notify your surgeon, because this condition (called dehiscence) can delay normal healing and make the wound more vulnerable to infection. If you notice the visible layer of sutures or staples coming out, or if the wound edges begin to pull away from each other, call your surgeon’s office. Place a piece of sterile gauze (if available) over that part of the incision, and tape it down until you can see your surgeon.

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  1. Post-Op Instructions: Taking Care of Yourself After Surgery.
    U.S. National Institutes of Health. https://www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/patient_education/pepubs/postop.pdf
  2. Surgery. Merck Manuals. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/special-subjects/surgery/surgery
  3. After Surgery: Discomforts and Complications. University of
    Rochester Medical Center. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=85&ContentID=P01390
  4. Common Postoperative Complications. Patient Info. https://patient.info/doctor/common-postoperative-complications-pro
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 19
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