Surgical wounds and preventing infections

You can get a surgical wound infection after surgery, but this is not common.

It's important to be aware of the signs of a wound infection. If you have any symptoms, contact the hospital or a GP straight away.

Surgical wound infections happen when germs enter the cut that the surgeon makes through the skin to do an operation. 

A surgical wound infection can happen at any time from 2 to 3 days after surgery until the wound has healed. This is usually 2 to 3 weeks after the operation. Sometimes, you can get an infection several months after an operation. 

Most surgical wound infections are skin infections. They can sometimes spread to deeper tissues. 

Some types of surgery have more risk of infection than others. This is because of the risks from different types of germs. Infections are more likely to happen after surgery on parts of the body that have lots of germs, such as the gut.

Signs of a wound infection

You may have an infection if you notice any of these symptoms.

  • The skin around your wound is red or sore, or feels hot and swollen.
  • Your wound has liquid (often green or yellow pus) coming out of it.
  • Your wound opens.
  • You feel generally unwell or have a temperature (fever).

If you have a problem with your wound or any of these symptoms, contact your hospital doctor or a GP straight away. It is important to treat any infection as soon as possible to stop it getting worse.

Preventing a surgical wound infection

Your doctor or nurse tries to lower the risk of you getting a surgical wound infection. They might:

  • ask you to have a shower with soap and water before you come into hospital
  • ask you to clean yourself with an antibacterial solution or washcloths before you go for your operation
  • check if you have any germs that are resistant to a lot of antibiotics, such as MRSA (a type of bacteria) and carbapenem-resistant organisms (bacteria that live in the bowel)
  • give you antibiotics just before the operation

Looking after your wound

When you're in hospital, the nurse who changes your dressing checks your wound for any signs of infection.

If the nurse or doctor thinks that you have a surgical wound infection, they might take a sample from the surface of your wound with a swab. They send this sample to the laboratory for tests. You might also be treated with antibiotics.

If you're concerned about your wound, tell the nurse who looks after you. 

Do not remove your dressing or touch your wound or wound drain. You could accidentally spread germs from your fingers to the wound.

Keeping your hands clean

All hospital staff are taught to keep their hands clean to stop the spread of infection. 

If you think that a member of staff may have forgotten to wash their hands before touching your dressing, drain or wound, please remind them.

It is a good idea to learn the proper way to wash your hands.

After you leave hospital

After you leave hospital, please contact your doctor or a GP straight away if you have a problem with your wound. Sometimes, we may have asked you to contact the hospital.

It is important to treat any infection as soon as possible to stop it getting worse.

Telling the hospital about an infection

About 1 month after your operation, we might send you a questionnaire or phone you to ask if you had any problems with your wound. This information helps the hospital to improve the way that we do things.

The hospital might give some of this information to the UK Health Security Agency and Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (previously Public Health England). We do not share any information that can be used to identify you, such as your name, address or postcode.

Resource number: 3057/VER6
Last reviewed: March 2022
Next review: March 2025

Contact us

If you have a problem with your wound when you’ve left hospital, please contact your doctor or GP immediately, unless you have been told to contact the hospital.

You can also call NHS 111 or contact the team who cared for you for clinical advice.

Phone: 020 7188 7188

Do you have any comments or concerns about your care?

Contact our Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)

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