What to Do If a Surgical Incision Gets Infected

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An infection of a surgical wound can delay healing and cause additional pain and discomfort. Knowing what to do if you spot signs of a surgical site infection may prevent serious complications. Surgical site infections are the leading cause of hospital readmission after surgery, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Appropriate home care and prompt medical treatment may allow you to continue your recovery at home.

Signs of a Surgical Site Infection

Be alert for signs of infection, including:

  • Increased redness around the incision or wound
  • Increased pain
  • Warmth—the area around the wound feels hotter than the surrounding skin
  • Yellow, green, whitish, grey or foul-smelling drainage

If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, call your healthcare provider. Your provider will likely ask a few questions about your condition—How are you feeling over all? How high is your fever? When did you start having chills?—and give you advice based upon your responses.

In some cases, your provider will advise you on how to care for the infection at home, ask you to monitor the incision, and have you call with an update in a day or two. In other cases, your provider may ask you to go to the clinic or a local urgent care for evaluation.

Do not worry about “bothering” your healthcare provider. The sooner an infection is identified and treated, the better the outcome. A delay of a couple days can be the difference between home care and hospital readmission.

Surgical Site Infection Treatment

If you don’t have a fever, you may be able to manage the infection at home with topical antibiotic ointment, which may be prescribed for you or is available over the counter at most stores. Always wash your hands well before managing your incision. Follow the instructions on the packaging (and your doctor’s direction) regarding ointment application. Redness, swelling and tenderness at the surgical site should improve within a day or so. If your surgical site starts looking worse instead of better, contact your healthcare provider ASAP.

If you’re running a fever or have a more advanced infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics. Many infections can be managed with oral antibiotics. It is important to take antibiotic medication as prescribed and to finish the entire course of medication, even after you start feeling better. Stopping your medicine too soon can allow the infection to take hold again and may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Some surgical site infections are best treated with intravenous (IV) antibiotics. You don’t necessarily need to be hospitalized to receive IV antibiotics; however, you may need to report to the hospital or clinic a few days in a row to receive treatment. Usually, a nurse will administer the medication—a process which could take an hour or so—and observe your reaction. If you tolerate the treatment, you can go home until your next dose is due.

If your surgical site infection is widespread or severe, your doctor may need to clean the incision. In some cases, cleaning a surgical wound means removing any staples or stitches and physically removing infected and dead tissue. If the wound isn’t large, this procedure may be performed in a clinic. If the wound is extensive, you may need a second surgery to thoroughly clean the wound.

A surgical site infection can delay wound healing and, in the most extreme cases, become life-threatening. Prompt identification of infection and appropriate treatment can prevent complications and get the healing process back on track.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Caring for Your Incision After Surgery. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/caring-for-your-incision-after-surgery/
  3. Surgical Wound Infection – Treatment. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007645.htm
  4. Wound Infection. Seattle Children’s. https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/wound-infection/
  5. How to Identify and Treat Post-Surgery Infections. https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_r9o0ezil
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