As a patient, you are an important member of the team responsible for your health care. If you have been scheduled for surgery, here are some ways you can help prevent surgical infections:
Before you go to the hosptial:
Stop smoking. If you smoke, consider stopping smoking a few weeks before your surgery. Smoking may increase your chance of developing a lung infection following a surgery and may inhibit healing.
Talk to your doctor about chronic medical conditions. Some chronic medical conditions such as diabetes increase your risk of infections.
Ask your doctor about monitoring your glucose (sugar) levels during and after surgery, especially if you are having cardiac surgery. Find out what you can do to keep your blood sugar levels in control before, during and after surgery. The stress of surgery can make glucose levels fluctuate. Controlled blood glucose levels help you to resist infection better.
Consider losing weight. If you are overweight, try to lose some of those extra pounds before your surgery is scheduled. Patients who are overweight are more likely to develop complications after surgery.
Eat healthier. Make sure your diet includes healthy food items that are rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins.
Ask about how your skin will be prepared before surgery. Your doctor may give you special instructions for cleaning the surgical site before your surgery. Some physicians use a special product, such as chlorhexidine, that helps reduce the risk of infection. Do not shave the surgical site. Shaving has been shown to cause skin irritation that increases the risk of infection. If hair must be removed before surgery, ask that clippers be used instead of a razor.
Ask your doctor about keeping you warm during surgery. Operating rooms are often kept cold, but for many types of surgery, patients who are kept warm resist infection better. This can be done with special blankets, hats and booties and warmed IV fluids.
While you are in the hospital:
Clean your hands. Hand washing, using either soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, remains our best defense against infections. Hand washing is recommended when your hands are visibly soiled (dirty), before eating, and after using the restroom. You also should remind visitors to wash their hands. If you don’t see a health care employee clean their hands, ask them to do so before touching you.
Check dressings and tubes. If you notice that a dressing has become loose or is wet, ask a nurse to change it for you. Bandages should stay clean and dry to help protect your skin. Also, tell your nurse if a drainage tube or catheter becomes loose.
Protect your urinary tract system. You may need a urinary catheter following your surgery, but remind the doctors and nurses that you want it removed as soon as possible since this will reduce your risk of infection. It’s also important that you drink as many fluids as your doctor allows to help flush your urinary tract system.
Breathe and move. If your doctor prescribes breathing exercises following surgery, make sure you follow the instructions for frequency and duration of the exercises. These will help keep your lungs clear. You also should be as active as your doctor will allow. Even if it’s just a slow walk across the room, you are helping your body heal.
Avoid spreading germs. You should try not to touch your mouth or eyes with your hands. Do not set food or utensils on furniture or bed sheets. Germs can live on surfaces for days and may cause infections if they get into your mouth.
When you get ready to go home
Make sure you understand all your doctor’s instructions, including:
- What medicines you should take and how often they should be taken.
- Bathing instructions (sponge bath, shower or tub baths).
- Incision care instructions such as how to change dressings and tips for keeping the area clean.
- What activity levels are allowed, including whether you can drive or if there are limitations on lifting heavy objects.
- When you should schedule follow-up appointments.
You also should know about warning signs that make it necessary to call your physician. These may include fever, increased pain, drainage, and redness or swelling around the incision site. At home, you should drink plenty of fluids, get regular exercise and follow good hygiene practices.
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