Warning Signs of an Infection After Surgery

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
  • Approximately 1 to 4% of people who undergo surgery will develop an infection after the procedure. Infections inhibit healing and may cause additional health complications. Be alert for signs of infection after surgery. Prompt medical evaluation and treatment, if necessary, can prevent the infection from progressing. Ignoring or overlooking symptoms of infection could result in another hospital stay. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, surgical site infections are the leading cause of hospital readmission after surgery.

    Consult your healthcare professional if you notice any of these surgical site infection symptoms.

  • 1
    Fever after surgery
    senior Hispanic woman checking her temperature and looking at thermometer with concern on her face

    A fever is a prime symptom of infection. You don’t need to regularly measure your body temperature with a thermometer after surgery, but you should pay attention to physical signs of fever. If you develop chills, shivering or unexpected sweating, grab a thermometer and check your temperature. Normal human body temperature is approximately 98.6°F (37°C); anything between 97-99°F is considered within normal limits. Call your healthcare provider if your temperature is above 100°F. (No thermometer? Call your doctor if you have physical signs of a fever.)

  • 2
    closeup of infected, stitched wound with skin redness

    A certain amount of redness at the surgical site is completely normal. In fact, it’s a sign that your body is healing. However, the redness should gradually decrease over time. An increase in redness can indicate infection.

    Healthcare providers will sometimes use a pen to circle the redness around a surgical wound, so they can easily see if the redness spreads beyond its initial boundary. You can do the same thing at home.

    Streaks of red around the wound can also signal infection.

  • 3
    Increasing wound pain after surgery
    Unseen person with stomach or abdominal pain

    Pain is expected after surgery. However, pain that gets worse instead of better over time can be a sign of infection.

    If your pain increases or does not go away with doctor-recommended pain medication, call your healthcare provider. Your provider may want to assess you to determine the cause of your pain. Your healthcare provider will also work with you to develop a pain control plan.

  • 4
    doctor or nurse pointing to swollen foot and ankle with gout; bandage covering ankle sore from large tophus

    Redness and swelling around the surgical area are common after surgery, as the body sends extra fluids and blood cells to the area to facilitate healing. Swelling is usually relatively minor, though, and almost always goes away within a few days of surgery.

    If you notice swelling near your surgical wound 48 hours or more after surgery, contact your healthcare provider and report your observations. (Your provider will ask you to describe your surgical site and physical symptoms.) You may even be able to upload a photo of the area to your doctor’s practice portal or schedule a telehealth appointment.

  • 5
    closeup of nurses hands is taking care of patient with Achilles tendon or heel injury and stitches

    Drainage from a surgical wound is not necessarily a cause for alarm, depending on what it looks like. A bit of bloody drainage or blood-tinged fluid is normal after surgery; sometimes, wounds weep a bit of clear, pinkish fluid.

    Cloudy, yellowish, green, tan, or thick discharge is not normal. If you notice pus in or around your surgical incision, contact your healthcare provider. Your provider may want to see you to determine if medical treatment is necessary.

  • 6
    Unpleasant odor
    sick woman in blanket coughing at home

    A bad smell coming from your wound is a bad sign. Some bacteria break down healing tissue, creating distinctly unpleasant odors. (Fun fact: Some healthcare providers can accurately guess the type of bacteria causing infection based on the smell of the wound.)

    You might notice some unusual scents while caring for your surgical incision, but the smell shouldn’t be offensive. If your wound stinks despite proper care and cleaning, call your healthcare provider ASAP.

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  1. Surgical Site Infections. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. https://psnet.ahrq.gov/primer/surgical-site-infections
  2. Surgical Site Infections. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/surgical-site-infections
  3. Frequently Asked Questions About Surgical Site Infections. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/HAI/ssi/faq_ssi.html
  4. Surgical Site Infection. Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital. https://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=550126
  5. Surgical Wound Care – Closed. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000738.htm
  6. How to Identify and Treat Post-Surgery Infections. University of Utah Health. https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_r9o0ezil
  7. 4 Signs a Wound Requires Additional Care. Lane Regional Medical Center. https://www.lanermc.org/community/lane-health-blog/4-signs-a-wound-requires-additional-care
  8. Caring for Your Incision After Surgery. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/caring-for-your-incision-after-surgery/
  9. Wound Infection. Seattle Children’s. https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/wound-infection/

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 17
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