How Do I Care for an Open Incision?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2019
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Wound care for an open incision includes regular dressing changes and checks for signs of complications. Depending on the nature of the surgery, the patient may spend some time in the hospital before being discharged to recover at home. Care providers should give the patient some wound care supplies to start with, and more can be purchased at a drug store or medical supply company. An instruction sheet may also be provided, with phone numbers to call in case of emergency. It is advisable to keep this in a safe place to make sure the information will be accessible.

Open incisions are not sutured, stapled, or glued shut. They heal from the bottom up and may take several weeks to fill in. Patients need to keep their incisions clean to reduce the risk of infection, using dressings to absorb seepage from the wound over the course of healing. The dressings should be changed periodically, usually at least once a day.

Before a dressing change, patients should wash their hands and lay out everything they need. This can include a new dressing, bandage tape, and gloves. Patients start by putting on gloves and peeling off the old dressing, which can be moistened if it appears to stick. After removing and discarding the soiled dressing and tape, it is important to wash the hands again. The open incision can be washed with a saline solution or mild soapy water.


One way to do this is to take a shower and allow the water to gently fall on the wound. Showering with an open incision is usually permitted within a few days of surgery. Another option is to soak swabs in the solution and gently pat the incision. Surgeons may direct their patients to irrigate the wound, using a large syringe to squirt water into the wound and allow it to carry away debris. Using a clean, dry towel, the patient can pat the incision dry and then replace the bandage.

When patients clean an open incision, they can check it for signs of infection. Some redness and swelling can be normal, but if it increases, it may be an indicator of a problem. Foul-smelling pus, extreme tenderness, and radiating lines of discoloration are also bad signs. If patients notice these indicators, they should call their care providers to discuss the situation and determine if they need to come in for treatment.

During the healing process, patients may need to avoid some activities. Heavy physical exercise could strain an open incision, for example, and patients cannot take baths or engage in other activities where they would be submerged in water. Abdominal incisions in particular can be prone to strain during healing and patients should use care when bending, straightening, and lifting.


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