Postoperative problems

If you or a family member has had an operation, you need to take care afterwards to ensure you recover properly.

There are many different problems that can affect you after an operation, so please read these instructions carefully.

This advice covers the 6 weeks straight after your operation.

Any procedure performed by a doctor or surgeon under local or general anaesthetic is an operation. This advice applies even if you went home on the same day.

Types of post-operative problems

There are several different areas that postoperative problems can relate to.

  • General wellbeing problems may include fever, pain, poor appetite, fatigue, depression, uneasiness or anxiety, or allergic reaction to post-operative medications.
  • Respiratory (lung) problems may include collapsed lung, pneumonia, trapped air in your chest or a blood clot on your lung.
  • Urinary (bladder) problems could be a urinary tract infection or not being able to pass urine.
  • Wound problems may include bleeding, blood clots or fluid build-up, infection, or opening of the wound.
  • Vascular (blood circulation) problems that could develop are inflammation in the wall of your veins, or deep vein thrombosis.
  • Gastrointestinal (stomach and intestine) complications could include a blockage in your bowel, inflammation in your pancreas or gallbladder, or constipation.

Stitches (sutures)

Stitches are generally removed 3–14 days after surgery, depending on the wound and its location. Stitches on your face are likely to be removed in 3 days, while stitches over joints may need to remain in place for 14 days or more.

Absorbable (dissolving) stitches don’t need removing and should disappear within 2–6 weeks.

Some surgery wounds are closed with staples. These are generally removed around the same time as stitches. Sometimes staples are removed after 3 days and replaced with steri-strips (thin adhesive strips placed across the wound). Steri-strips are usually left in place until they fall off.

Call 111

Call 111 for an ambulance immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

  • You are coughing up large amounts of blood.
  • You have severe breathing problems.
  • There is continuous or heavy bleeding from your wound that can’t be controlled by 10 minutes of steady pressure.
  • Your wound has opened and internal organs are exposed.
  • You have any heart attack symptoms (see below) for longer than 15 minutes.
  • You normally have stable angina but attacks are happening more frequently and lasting longer than 15 minutes (especially if they happen while you’re resting or doing very little activity).
  • You have new neurological symptoms, like weakness, paralysis, numbness, pins and needles, severe headaches or speech difficulties.
  • You have a seizure (fit) when you haven’t had these before.

Also call 111 if you have any signs of anaphylaxis within 1 hour of taking your medication. These symptoms include:

  • swelling around the lips and eyes
  • rapid development of a rash
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • severe dizziness or faints
  • persistent sneezing or coughing
  • hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing or throat tightness
  • signs of shock (pale skin, rapid pulse and fainting).

Heart attack symptoms

The symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • pain across the front of your chest which lasts more than a few minutes. This may feel like pressure, squeezing or a burning sensation, and may spread to your neck, shoulder, jaw, back, upper abdomen or either arm.
  • unusually strong, fast or uneven heartbeat
  • fainting, dizziness, sweating, nausea, vomiting or shortness of breath.

See your doctor at once

Call your doctor for an urgent appointment if you have any of these symptoms:

  • vomit that is red, bloody or looks like coffee grounds
  • an arm, leg, finger, or so on, that is pale, discoloured or cool compared to the others, with new, severe pain
  • unbearable abdominal pain
  • coughing up bloody mucous or having difficulty breathing or faintness, with new swelling, pain or tenderness in your leg
  • signs of dehydration
  • persistent vomiting or if you can’t keep down fluids for over 4 hours
  • severe pain over your bladder, signs of a urinary tract infection or if you haven’t passed urine for 8 hours or more
  • fever of 38.5ºC or higher
  • coughing up green, yellow, brown or bloody mucous.

Also see your doctor if:

  • you’re taking pain relief medication but your pain isn’t going away
  • you have new or worse bleeding from your wound that needs pressure to control
  • your wound is opening.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Back to top