All You Need to Know About Infection After Surgery

All You Need to Know About Infection After Surgery

As your body heals from surgery, it’s often in a compromised state and needs all the help it can get. One thing that makes the road to recovery even bumpier? Developing an infection after surgery. Today, then, we’re talking all you need to know about this fairly common occurrence—including what to look for, when to call your doctor, and ways you can work to prevent an infection after surgery. Read on for pro medical tips and an empowered operation. 

What exactly is an infection after surgery? 

While there are all types of infections, the one we’re addressing today is infection after surgery, or what’s called a “surgical site infection” (commonly known as SSI). Surgical site infections happen at the site of a patient’s surgical incision and occur in around 2-5% of surgeries involving incisions. Because your immune system is already compromised as your body works to recover from surgery, SSIs can be severe and even life threatening—in the worst cases, they can cause complications that ultimately lead to organ failure.

What causes an infection after surgery?

An infection after surgery is caused by germs entering the body at the incision site during or after your procedure. Any surgery that involves breaking the skin (an incision) can ultimately lead to an infection, as the skin acts as your body’s natural barrier against infection. Germs can enter your surgical wound through contact (from a contaminated person or a contaminated instrument) or via the air—and germs that are already present on your body can enter your wound and lead to an infection after surgery as well. 

What to Look For & When to Call Your Doctor

An infection after surgery typically occurs within 30 days following your procedure and can include any of the following symptoms: 

  • High temperature/fever
  • Swelling, hardness, and/or redness at the incision site
  • Drainage (pus) from the incision site
  • Warmth at the incision site
  • Tiredness/malaise

If you’ve had a surgery that involves an incision, it’s important you inspect your surgical incision daily for signs of infection. If you’re experiencing things like warmth at the incision site, redness or swelling at the site, discharge from the incision site, or a high fever—you’ll want to call your doctor immediately. 

Understanding the Difference Between Infection Symptoms and General Recovery

Keep in mind that some of the symptoms listed above are associated with healing from surgery in general—so it’s important to understand the difference between the expected symptoms of healing versus the symptoms of an infection after surgery. While pain at your incision site is expected (you’ve been sliced open and stitched back up, after all), it should get better as you heal—if it’s getting worse or increases for seemingly no reason at all, this could be a sign of an infection. Also, while your incision might be painful, it should not be warm to the touch or discharge pus—if pain at the site is accompanied by either of those symptoms, give your doctor a call. 

The same goes for feeling tired: while it’s normal to feel lethargic as you recover from surgery, that should get a little better each day as you heal. If you’re feeling better for a few days and then experience a sudden, inexplicable drop in energy, this could be a sign you’ve developed an SSI. 

How to Prevent Infection After Surgery

While infection after surgery is a fairly common occurrence, there are a few things you can do to help prevent it: 

  • Before Surgery: The best thing you can do to prevent an infection after surgery? Have an open dialogue with your doctor before your surgery and follow all of your doctor’s instructions (including taking any antibiotics she prescribes). You’ll also want to stop smoking before surgery, as smokers are at a higher risk for developing an infection. Be sure to stop shaving at the expected surgical site as well, as this can irritate your skin and create an environment that’s ripe for developing an infection. Last, but not least, complex carb-loading before surgery has been shown to reduce infection risk.
  • After Surgery: Be sure to do everything you can to keep your wound clean—wash your hands frequently, and do not touch your wound or allow others to touch it unless you’re changing your dressing. Be sure to keep the sterile dressing your doctor applied for 48 hours following surgery. When it’s time to change your dressing, do so exactly as your doctor instructed. If you’re not sure how, call your doctor’s office for specific instructions—and always wash your hands before changing your dressing. 

Overall the best things you can do to ensure a safe, healthy healing process include taking proactive steps to reduce your risk of developing an SSI, checking your body daily for signs of an infection after surgery, and calling your doctor immediately if you feel you might have developed one.

Want even more pre-surgery tips? Browse the rest of our blog for empowering pre-op information, helpful nutrition advice, and pro medical tips for ensuring your recovery is the best it can be.