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What Is a Postoperative Fever?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2016
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Postoperative fever is an abnormally high temperature that follows after a surgical operation. Although it may be due to infection, often the temperature appears to occur in the absence of infection, and is a heightened inflammatory response to the stresses of surgery. Other causes include damage to blood vessels and lung problems, and altogether, the fever is a common occurrence in surgical patients. Commonly, a postoperative fever that is not due to infection resolves itself within two days of the surgery.

Although definitions of postoperative fever may vary according to the health authorities in different areas, a typical example of the definition of a postoperative fever is a temperature of above 100° F (about 38° C) over two days straight. Alternatively, a patient may still have the diagnosis if he or she has a temperature above 102° F (about 39° C) over only one day. The presence of these high temperatures, compared to a normal human temperature of 98.6° F (37° C) indicates that the body is running an inflammatory response orchestrated by the immune system.

Inflammation and high temperature are part of the immune response to microbial infection, and they can also be present when microbes are not invading the body. A postoperative fever is very common after surgery, and does not always pose a serious risk to the patient. Sometimes, though, the cause of the fever may be potentially life-threatening, such as an infection or a blood clot.

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Commonly, a fever that occurs after surgery and then disappears within two days is not caused by an infection. Patients with this type of postoperative fever tend to be in the majority. When a patient still has a fever when three days have passed, the doctor then typically looks for more serious causes than the short-term inflammatory response to surgery.

Microbial pathogens can infect the site of the incision made for surgery, or affect sites inside the body that were involved in the surgery. If the person also has to use a catheter, which is a tube inserted into the body, microbes can infect the catheter and the insertion site. If the infection grows and gets into the bloodstream, the patient is under a significant risk of death. If a postoperative fever lasts for three days and continues, the doctor may take samples for microbiological testing to look for infectious pathogens.

Some serious cases of postoperative fever stem not from infections but rather from other forms of damage to the body. Atelactasis is a condition where the areas of the lungs that swap new air for old carbon dioxide collapse, and cannot perform their job anymore. The blood vessels may also break, or the blood may clot abnormally, producing potentially dangerous conditions such as blood clots and hematomas. Fever after surgery is monitored to ensure none of these dangerous causes of high temperature are present.

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stoneMason
Post 3

There are also some rare cases where drugs used after surgery or something given to the patient during surgery may cause fever. For example, blood given during surgery can sometimes cause fever. When it's caused by a drug, it's called drug fever. But the fever caused by these last longer than a day or two, they can last up to a week or more. And they're not very common so doctors don't usually suspect them unless all other possible causes have been eliminated.

bluedolphin
Post 2

@burcinc-- It would be best for your doctor to answer this. I'm not a doctor. Can you maybe reach his nurse?

I don't know what type of surgery your father had, but I believe that after surgery, doctors prescribe their patients antibiotics to prevent an infection. If your father is on antibiotics after his surgery, I don't think infection is a major concern, especially so soon. More than likely, it is postoperative fever and it will probably go away on its own in a day or two.

Having said that, your father's doctor will give the most accurate advice on this. It is a good idea to keep an eye on the fever. If it increases further, that will be of concern. But I have no idea about the fever reducers.

burcinc
Post 1

My father returned home after surgery yesterday and today, he has a fever. I didn't even know that there is such a thing as postoperative fever. His doctor didn't mention this. I tried calling him but couldn't get through.

So should we wait two more days and see if the fever goes away? If it does turn out to be infection, wouldn't it be bad that we waited so long to get help? Should my dad take fever reducers or should we not give him anything to see how the fever proceeds on its own?

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