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The surgeon's job is mostly finished. Now it's up to you to care for the surgical wound. With good care, you can help ensure that your incision heals well and an infection doesn't develop.

In most cases, a surgical wound heals within about two weeks. It may take longer if you have a medical condition or are taking certain medications, such as steroids.  While it heals, you'll be caring for the incision, changing dressings, cleaning the wound, and watching for signs of complications.

This guide can help you tend to a surgical incision. If you have any questions about caring for your wound, be sure to talk with your surgeon or another member of your medical team.

Surgical Wounds: How to Care for Your Incision

Surgeons use a variety of techniques to close a surgical incision. You may have stitches, staples, or surgical glue.

If you have staples, your surgeon will remove them once the wound has healed. Surgical glue comes off on its own, usually within five to 10 days. If you have stitches, they will either dissolve over time or the surgeon will remove them. If they are dissolvable, small strips of tape may hold the wound together. The surgeon will remove them later or they may fall off within one to two weeks.

To care for your incision:

  • Elevate the wound above your heart for a few days to lessen swelling and pain and to speed healing.
  • Don't pull on stitches, staples, tape, or surgical glue.
  • Avoid scratching an itchy wound. Ask the doctor about medication to relieve itching.
  • If you have a skin adhesive, keep the wound away from direct sunlight.
  • If you have any bleeding at the incision site, apply firm pressure to the wound for at least five minutes, using a clean tissue or towel. If bleeding increases or does not stop, call your doctor or go to a hospital emergency room.

Surgical Wound Care: Changing the Dressing

After surgery, a sterile bandage (dressing) will likely cover the wound to protect it from bacteria, absorb fluids, and keep it dry. At some point, the surgeon may have you take it off for a while to allow the wound to be open to air.

Avoid showering until at least two to three days after surgery. And don't swim, take a bath, or soak in a hot tub until your surgeon says it's OK.  

Change dressings daily or as often as your doctor tells you to. Ask when you can begin cleaning the incision area. Avoid using scented soaps, shower gels, alcohol, iodine, or peroxide around the surgical wound.

Follow these steps to clean and dress the wound:

1. Remove the dressing

  • Take off jewelry before changing dressing or cleaning the wound.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for about 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Rinse your hands well and dry with a clean towel.
  • Loosen the dressing tape.
  • Put on a medical glove to remove the dressing. Place the dressing and the glove in a plastic bag.
  • Wash your hands again.