You will have a surgical wound after any type of operation that involves making a cut into your skin, including minor procedures carried out by GPs and other doctors, as well as those done by surgeons. For simplicity, we will refer to surgeons throughout this factsheet.
The position and size of the cut your surgeon makes will depend on the type of operation and surgery you have. For example, if you have keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery, your surgeon will make small cuts to your skin, which will be closed with stitches, clips or skin glue to bring the skin edges together to heal.
There are a number of things that you can do to look after your wound, lower your risk of infection and encourage healing.
Changing the dressing
You can leave the original dressing in place for up to five days (or for as long as your surgeon advises) providing that it's dry and not soaked with blood, and that there are no signs of infection.
Before you remove the dressing, wash your hands with soap and water and then carefully take off the dressing. Try not to touch the healing wound with your fingers.
Your wound may then be left without a dressing. However, you might like to continue wearing one over the area for protection, especially if your clothing rubs against it. The hospital may give you a replacement dressing for you to use at home. Apply the dressing carefully and don't touch the inside of it. Don't use antiseptic cream under the dressing.
Taking care of stitches
Dissolvable stitches will usually disappear in about one to three weeks, but it can take longer, depending on the type you have. Non-dissolvable stitches, clips and staples are usually removed after three to 21 days, depending on the type of operation you have.
During this time you may see small pieces of the stitch material poking out of your healing wound. Don't be tempted to pull on these. If there are loose ends that are catching on clothing, trim the stitch carefully with a clean pair of scissors. Otherwise wait until they are removed or fall out on their own. If the stitches cause you pain or discomfort, contact your GP for advice.
Eating and drinking properly
Your body needs a lot of energy to heal quickly so it's important that you eat well. In particular, you need vitamin C and protein so it’s important that you try to eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Make sure that you drink enough water because if you're dehydrated, your wound may take longer to heal.
It's important that you lose any excess weight before your operation, as being overweight can increase the time it takes for your wound to heal. If you have diabetes, it’s important to take care that your blood sugar is well controlled.
Bathing and showering
It's usually possible for you to have a bath or a shower about 48 hours after surgery, but this will depend on the particular operation you have – ask your nurse for advice.
Some general points to remember are as follows.
- If possible, have showers rather than baths so that your wound doesn't soak in water – this could soften the scar tissue and cause your wound to reopen. Only have a bath if you can keep your wound out of the water.
- Remove any dressing before you have a bath or shower, unless your surgeon or nurse gives you different advice. Some dressings are waterproof and can be left in place.
- Don't use any soap, shower gel, body lotion, talcum powder or other bathing products directly over your healing wound. You can let the shower water gently splash onto your healing wound. However, don't rub the area, as this might be painful and could delay the healing process.
- Dry the surrounding area carefully by patting it gently with a clean towel but allow your wound to air dry.
- If you had surgery on your face, don't wear make-up over the scar until it has fully healed.
Once your wound has healed, you may find gently rubbing petroleum jelly or a fragrance-free moisturiser into the scar helps to reduce how noticeable it is. There is also some evidence that using a cream or ointment that contains arnica can help wound healing, but you shouldn’t use it on broken skin or if you have a skin condition. Always speak to your GP or surgeon before using any herbal remedies. Silicone gel sheets are also sometimes used to improve the appearance of scars, but there is only evidence for their effectiveness on certain types of scars.