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A Patient's Guide to Lung Surgery

Taking Care of Your Incisions After Lung Surgery

Bathtub with support handrail.

After leaving the hospital, you will need to follow the advice of your healthcare team so that you can recover as quickly as possible. Remember that scab formation on the incision is normal, and when you go home you may have one or two sutures where the chest tubes used to be. This is OK, the sutures will be taken out during your first office visit with the doctor.

Your incision extends through layers of skin and muscle. Your skin should be healed by the time of discharge and your scar should fade in approximately six months to one year. Tingling, itching, and numbness are normal sensations associated with surgical wounds and will eventually disappear. During the first six months after surgery, protect your incisions from the sun by wearing a shirt or sun block.

Types of Incisions

Traditional: If the breastbone is separated during surgery, strong sternal wires are used to close it. The chest is then closed with special internal or traditional external stitches.

Minimally Invasive: In a minimally invasive technique, smaller incisions are made that may or may not go through the sternum.

Other incisions may be present after surgery, from chest tubes, pacemaker wires or intravenous (IV) sites.

Tips on Traveling

Going Home by Plane

When you are making reservations, let the airline know that you are recovering from surgery. If you also had heart surgery, the sternal wires placed during surgery may set off the airport alarms. Because the distance may be too far to walk, ask for a wheelchair to take you to and from the plane. Once in the plane, stand up in the aisle and stretch your legs for a few minutes every hour to get your circula­tion going. If possible, also walk up and down the aisle.

Going Home by Car

When riding in a car, remember to stop every hour and walk 5 to 10 minutes to get your circulation going. You should wear your seatbelt, placing a small towel in between the seatbelt and your incision. If your car trip is longer than two hours, we recommend that you stay overnight in a hotel, get a good night's rest, then resume the next morning.

Taking a Shower or Bath

You may shower every day as soon as you are discharged from the hospital. Use warm rather than hot water. It is not recommended to take a tub bath, or use a Jacuzzi for approximately four weeks.

Wash your incisions gently every day with warm water and mild soap. Pat them dry with a soft towel. Do not apply lotion, powder, or ointments until the scabs have fallen off (approximately 3-4 weeks). If you have paper strips on your incisions, they should peel off as you shower daily. If they do not, you may gently peel them off five days following discharge.

If the sutures are in your chest, shower with your back facing the water spray. If you cannot take a shower, a quick 10 minute bath is okay, but do not soak in the bathtub. Use only normal soap, not perfumed soap or body wash. Do not put the soap directly onto the incision and do not rub the incisions. Put soapy water on your hand or washcloth and gently wash your incisions. Only use a washcloth to rub when the scabs are gone and the skin is completely healed.

Signs of Incision Infection

It is important to look at your incisions periodically for signs of infection. Call your surgeon's office if you see any of these signs of infection:

  • increased drainage, swelling or oozing from incision
  • opening of the incision line
  • redness around the incision
  • warmth along the incision line
  • increased body temperature (greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Centigrade)
Dealing with Discomfort

Itching, tightness or numbness along your incisions is normal when you go home after surgery.

It is also normal to have muscle or incision discomfort in your chest if you are doing an activity. But you should not have the same pain that you had before surgery; if you do, let your doctor know. Also, if your sternum (breastbone) feels like it moves, pops or cracks when you move around, call your doctor.
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