What to Do If a Surgical Wound Reopens

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doctor hands covering sutured wound after mole removal

After surgery, a physician closes the wound with stitches, staples, or skin glue. These materials hold the edges of the wound together to promote healing. Occasionally, the stitches, staples or glue give way and the wound reopens, either partially or completely. A wound reopening is called wound dehiscence (“duh-hi-sense”).

Surgical wound opening is most likely within 3 to 10 days after surgery. Medical attention may be necessary to prevent infection and promote healing.

Risk Factors for Surgical Wound Opening

Some medical conditions and situations increase the risk of wound dehiscence. If you have any of these at-risk conditions, carefully inspect your wound daily for signs of separation:

  • Obesity, as excess weight puts extra stress on surgical incisions
  • Diabetes, which is linked to poor wound healing
  • Smoking, which is also linked to poor wound healing
  • Poor nutrition, which impairs wound healing
  • Long-term use of corticosteroid medication. These medicines, which are used to manage many medical conditions (such as asthma), can inhibit healing.
  • Advanced age. Older skin is often thinner and more prone to injury, and older people are more likely to also have a medical condition that may impair healing.

Increasing your activity too soon after surgery also increases the risk of surgical wound dehiscence. It is best to follow your physician’s instructions regarding rest and activity. As inconvenient as it may seem to ask others to lift and carry things for you after surgery, it’s better to do so than to do it yourself and reopen your wound.

Infection of the surgical incision is another common cause of wound dehiscence.

What to Do When a Surgical Wound Opens

Call your healthcare provider as soon as you notice a problem with your wound. Call even if the problem seems minor—if just one stitch or staple is missing, for instance, and the rest of the incision looks okay. It’s better to get expert medical advice than to skip it and hope everything will be fine.

If most of the wound is intact, your physician may recommend applying antibiotic ointment to the wound and covering it with a clean bandage or dressing. If the wound has opened substantially, your doctor will likely ask you to come in for evaluation and treatment. Treatment may include cleaning and reclosing the wound and a course of antibiotic medicine. (If your provider prescribes antibiotics, be sure to take the medicine as directed and finish the whole course of antibiotics.)

In some cases, reclosing the wound is not the best option. Instead, the healthcare provider may recommend allowing the wound to heal from the inside out, using wet-to-dry dressings to protect the wound and promote healing. Your physician or a nurse will show you how to appropriately care for the wound and handle dressing changes.

If your surgical wound “pops” open, exposing a gaping hole, cover it with saline-soaked gauze pads (if possible), top with dry gauze (or clean towels), and head to the hospital. (Ideally, after calling your healthcare provider.) Call 911 if you need transport assistance. An abdominal wound that’s popped open, for instance, requires expert medical attention, which may include surgery.

Knowing what to do when a surgical wound reopens will allow you to react quickly, which may prevent further complications.

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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. Surgical Wound Care – Open. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000040.htm
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  4. Caring for Your Incision After Surgery. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/caring-for-your-incision-after-surgery/
  5. Wound Dehiscence. Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital. https://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=99918