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Surgical wound care - open

Surgical incision care; Open wound care




An incision is a cut through the skin that is made during surgery. It is also called a surgical wound. Some incisions are small, others are long. The size of the incision depends on the kind of surgery you had.

Sometimes, an incision breaks open. This may happen along the entire cut or just part of it. Your surgeon may decide not to close it again with sutures (stitches).

What to Expect at Home

If your surgeon does not close your wound again with sutures, you need to care for it at home, since it may take time to heal. The wound will heal from the bottom to the top. A dressing helps absorb drainage and keep the skin from closing before the wound underneath fills in.

Proper Handwashing

It is important to clean your hands before you change your dressing. You can use an alcohol-based cleanser. Or, you can wash your hands using these steps:

Removing the Old Dressing

Your health care provider will tell you how often to change your dressing. To prepare for the dressing change:

Remove the old dressing:

Caring for the Wound

You may use a gauze pad or soft cloth to clean the skin around your wound:

Your provider may also ask you to irrigate, or wash out, your wound:

Do not put any lotion, cream, or herbal remedies on or around your wound, unless your provider has said it is OK.

Putting on the New Dressing

Place the clean dressing on the wound as your provider taught you to. You may be using a wet-to-dry dressing that requires moistening the dressing before applying it.

Clean your hands when you are finished.

Throw away the old dressing and other used supplies in a waterproof plastic bag. Close it tightly then double it before putting it in the trash.

Wash any soiled laundry from the dressing change separately from other laundry. Ask your provider if you need to add bleach to the wash water.

Use a dressing only once. Never reuse it.

When to Call the Doctor

Contact your provider if:

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Wet-to-dry dressing changes


Boukovalas S, Aliano KA, Phillips LG, Norbury WB. Wound healing. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers M, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 21st ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier, 2022:chap 6.


Review Date: 3/31/2024  

Reviewed By: Debra G. Wechter, MD, FACS, General Surgery Practice Specializing in Breast Cancer, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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