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Wound Care After Your Heart Surgery

Caring for yourself at home, especially any wound you had during surgery, is an important part of your recovery after heart surgery. Your heart surgery may have been performed through an incision in your breastbone or sternum, or you may have an incision on the side of your chest.

Caring for Yourself After Incisions

To care for yourself after either of these types of incisions, please follow these steps:

  • Breathe in through your nose as you raise your arms during activity.
  • Breathe out through your mouth as you lower your arms. Never hold your breath.
  • You may raise your arms over your head to brush or shampoo your hair. Be careful when reaching. The breastbone and the muscles around it may be very sore for a while.
  • Do not lift anything heavier than 5 pounds for four weeks after surgery.
  • You should not push or pull with your arms, especially when rising from a chair or bed.
  • Assistive devices, such as canes or walkers, should be used only for balance. Do not place your full weight on any of these devices until the incision is fully healed (ten to twelve weeks).

Keeping the Incision Clean and Dry

It is very important to keep your incision clean and dry. Follow these guidelines:

  • Shower daily. Do not take a tub bath for four weeks or until your doctor says you may.
  • Wash your incisions with an antimicrobial soap and water. Always use a clean washcloth.
  • Do not put any creams, lotions, or antibiotic ointments on the incisions.
  • Keep your legs raised when sitting for more than 15 minutes.
  • Do not wear tight clothing that may rub against your incisions.

Normal Symptoms

The following symptoms are normal and should clear up in the first two to three weeks:

  • Black and blue skin around the incisions or redness along the incision edges.
  • Tenderness, swelling, numbness, or itching along the incision.
  • Small amount of clear or pinkish drainage from the incision.

Abnormal Symptoms

If you have any of the following symptoms, call your surgeon right away:

  • Redness that spreads out more than one inch from the incision edges.
  • Increased warmth in the skin around the incision.
  • Large amount of clear or pinkish drainage.
  • Sudden increased amount of drainage.
  • White, yellow, or green drainage with odor, which may be foul or sweet, coming from the incision.
  • Increase of swelling, tightness, or pain around the incision.
  • Fever higher than 101 ˚F (38.3 ˚C), chills, or temperature of 99 ˚F (37.2 ˚C) to 100.9 ˚F (38.27 ˚C) for more than three days.

To learn more about heart surgery at UPMC, check out our What to Expect: Heart Surgery booklet.