The main objective of taking care of an incision after surgery is to prevent infection so that the wound can heal properly. It’s normal and healthy for itching to occur during the healing process, but it can be an extremely uncomfortable and distracting sensation. There are several things a person can do to help alleviate an itchy incision, including keeping the area clean and the skin well-hydrated, and using over-the-counter or prescription medications.
There are two main reasons why a healing wound might become itchy. One is the growth of new nerve cells at the site, because it is nerve cells that allow the skin to feel sensations such as pain and itchiness. The second is that histamines are released at the site in response to new cell growth, and these chemicals also cause uncomfortable skin sensations. While itching is a sign of healing, everyone experiences wound healing differently, so it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm if the onset of this symptom is delayed.
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Combating Skin Dryness
Dry skin often gets irritated and can make itching worse. Keeping the skin well-hydrated is one way to help reduce prickly sensations caused by new skin cell growth. If you are having scheduled surgery, it can help to apply moisturizer to the proposed surgical site daily for a week or two prior, so that the skin has some extra hydration while it is covered by the dressing. After surgery, moisturizing cream can be used once the dressing has been removed, as long as the wound is closed. Check with a medical professional who is familiar with your case before using any new product on the incision, and if possible, use a cream that he or she has approved or recommended.
After surgery, most wounds are kept covered for one to two weeks. Once the stitches, staples, or adhesive strips are removed from the incision, and it has been checked by a medical professional, it’s safe to immerse the site in water. Regular washing of the area with mild soap and warm water will slough off dead or crusted skin, and help keep it clean. Removing old skin layers promotes healing, and keeping the incision free from irritants such as dust and dead skin helps to reduce itching. Soap does tend to increase dryness, however, so it is important to apply a medically-approved moisturizing lotion after each wash.
After the dressing has been removed, applying a cool compress to an itchy incision can help relieve mild discomfort. A compress can be a clean towel or other thick fabric wrapped around ice or an item such as a bag of frozen vegetables. Frozen items should never be placed directly on the skin, as a too-cold compress can damage the sensitive skin of the wound site. Each application should last no more than 20 minutes, with an interval of 20 minutes between sessions.
Taking care of an incision from the beginning helps minimize future problems, but a healthy wound almost always itches to some degree. It might be tempting to scratch or rub the site, but touching it too much can lead to inflammation and more uncomfortable sensations. Scratching in particular increases the risk that infection might develop at or around the incision site, especially if the skin is broken.
It’s also important to avoid movement that puts undue stress on the incision site, and movement that does involve that area should be as gentle as possible. Even though it’s a good idea to avoid touching the incision too often, it’s very useful to examine it regularly. A daily inspection when washing or otherwise caring for the incision makes it easier to detect changes that might signify infection or improper healing.
Many people find they need over-the-counter medications to combat the uncomfortable sensations they experience. Once the incision can be fully submersed in water, it is usually acceptable to apply anti-itch cream to the area around the incision. Because there are several types of creams, including anesthetics, antihistamines, and steroids, it’s best to ask a medical expert which type is most appropriate for you. This is particularly important for anyone with sensitive skin, as some of these skin creams can trigger dermatitis in susceptible people.
When to Get Professional Help
If an incision becomes overwhelmingly itchy to the point where over-the-counter preparations aren’t relieving the discomfort, a medical professional might be able to help by prescribing a stronger cream. Itching that's getting steadily worse over time, rather than better, can indicate an infection or a problem with the stitches, if you have them. Other changes at the site, such as inflammation, increasing pain or tenderness, redness, an unpleasant odor, and heat, are also signs of possible infection. It’s important to get prompt medical attention if any of these develop, even if the symptoms seem mild, as even minimal signs of infection can delay or prevent a wound healing.