Signs of Infection After Surgery

Your skin protects your body from infections. Any surgical procedure that breaks the skin will lead to postoperative infections. These infections are referred to as surgical site infections (SSIs) because they affect the surgery area.

Prevention is significant, and in most cases will help. However, you can still suffer from SSIs even after taking all measure to prevent an infection after surgery. The chances of having SSIs are about 1-3% and there are various signs to look out for an infection after surgery.

Signs of Infection after Surgery

You should inspect your incision every day for a few weeks after surgery and check your temperature every day at the same time. This will help you to identify any signs of infection early.

1. Malaise

The feeling of fatigue and weakness is a common sign of a systemic infection. This may cause you to oversleep and lack energy to perform your normal duties. Patients recovering from a surgery also experience this feeling but it gets better with time. However, with an infection, patients will experience a sudden feeling of exhaustion and lethargy after several days of feeling better.

2. Fever

A fever often makes you feel chilled and leads to dehydration. It will also reduce your appetite and cause a headache. A fever of 100 F or less is normal after surgery, but talk to your surgeon if your fever is 101F or more.

3. Hot Incision

An infected incision feels hot when touched. When infection occurs at the surgical site, the body sends blood cells to fight the infection at the incision. You can prevent an infection by taking proper care of the surgicalincision.

4. Pain

The pain at the surgical incision should decrease as the incision heals. Any increase in pain level could be a sign of an infection. Increasing pressure on the incision and decreasing your dose of pain medication will increase the pain level. Consult your surgeon if pain increases without an underlying cause.

5. Other Common Signs of Infection after Surgery

  • Swollen or hard incision: An infected incision may harden because of the inflamed tissues underneath. The incision will appear swollen.
  • Redness: An infection will cause an incision to turn red or have red streaks that spread to the surrounding area. Redness after surgery is normal but it should reduce over time and not intensify.
  • Pus: Pus or a bad-smelling drainage is one of the signs of infection after surgery. The pus can be white, green, blood-tinged or yellow in color. The drainage is often thick and sometimes chunky.
  • Raised skin: The lymph nodes near a surgical incision will swell if the incision is infected. Feel these nodes regularly to check for an infection.

Why Infection after Surgery Happens

Microorganisms cause infections after surgery. Most infections result from bacteria Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus. Microorganisms affect a surgical incision through contact with an infected surgical instrument or caregiver. Microorganisms in the air and in your body can also affect the surgical wound.

The factors that increase your risk of an infection after surgery include:

  • Smoking
  • A weak immune system
  • Obesity
  • Presence of other medical conditions or diseases
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Old age
  • A surgical procedure that lasts more than two hours
  • Abdominal surgery
  • Emergency surgery

Treatment and Care for Infection after Surgery

If you identify any signs of infection after surgery, you can use any of the following remedies to treat the infection.

1. Antibiotics

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection on the surgical wound. You will take antibiotics at least for a week. You may start with IV antibiotics and then proceed to pills but you must complete your dose even if you feel better. A test of pus from your surgical wound will indicate the best antibiotic. However, a wound that is infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus (MRSA) will resist the common antibiotics, and a specific antibiotic is needed.

2. Wound Care

  • Cleanthe incision: Use soap and water to clean the wound gently and remove its crust. However, do not soak or scrub the wound. Avoid iodine, hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol because they slow down health and harm the tissues. Pat the wound with a fresh, clean towel or air-dry it after washing. Reapply the dressing.
  • Take care of an undressed wound: Sometimes surgeons use small adhesive strips like Steri-strips or tissue glue to protect the incision instead of bandages or dressing. Keep the wound dry if it is covered with glue. Do not remove the glue or adhesive strips; they will fall off with time.
  • Avoid direct sunlight: Avoid exposing your incision to direct sunlight for the first 3-9 months. The new skin that forms to cover your wound is more sensitive to sunlight than normal skin. What's more, sunburns on the new skin leave bad scars, which is certainly something you'd like to avoid.

3. Surgery

If the infection is severe, your surgeon may perform an invasive surgery to clean your wound. This procedure involves:

  • Removing sutures or staples to open the wound
  • Testing the tissue and skin in the wound to identify an infection and the appropriate treatment
  • Removing infected and dead tissue
  • Rinsing the wound with a saline solution
  • Draining pus if present
  • Packing with a bandage and saline-soaked strips of dressing

How Can You Prevent It?

Your doctor can advise you on how to reduce your risk of infections after surgery.

  • Avoid smoking before surgery and discuss your medical history with the surgical team including any chronic illness like diabetes.
  • Do not shave the surgical site before surgery and avoid touching it after surgery.
  • Follow all wound care instructions from your doctor.
  • Call your doctor in case you identify any signs of infection after surgery such as redness, pain, heat, pus, fever, or tenderness on the surgical site.
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