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How Do I Treat an Itchy Incision?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The main objective of taking care of an incision after surgery is to prevent infection so that the wound can heal properly. It’s normal and healthy for itching to occur during the healing process, but it can be an extremely uncomfortable and distracting sensation. There are several things a person can do to help alleviate an itchy incision, including keeping the area clean and the skin well-hydrated, and using over-the-counter or prescription medications.

There are two main reasons why a healing wound might become itchy. One is the growth of new nerve cells at the site, because it is nerve cells that allow the skin to feel sensations such as pain and itchiness. The second is that histamines are released at the site in response to new cell growth, and these chemicals also cause uncomfortable skin sensations. While itching is a sign of healing, everyone experiences wound healing differently, so it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm if the onset of this symptom is delayed.

Combating Skin Dryness

Dry skin often gets irritated and can make itching worse. Keeping the skin well-hydrated is one way to help reduce prickly sensations caused by new skin cell growth. If you are having scheduled surgery, it can help to apply moisturizer to the proposed surgical site daily for a week or two prior, so that the skin has some extra hydration while it is covered by the dressing. After surgery, moisturizing cream can be used once the dressing has been removed, as long as the wound is closed. Check with a medical professional who is familiar with your case before using any new product on the incision, and if possible, use a cream that he or she has approved or recommended.

Washing

After surgery, most wounds are kept covered for one to two weeks. Once the stitches, staples, or adhesive strips are removed from the incision, and it has been checked by a medical professional, it’s safe to immerse the site in water. Regular washing of the area with mild soap and warm water will slough off dead or crusted skin, and help keep it clean. Removing old skin layers promotes healing, and keeping the incision free from irritants such as dust and dead skin helps to reduce itching. Soap does tend to increase dryness, however, so it is important to apply a medically-approved moisturizing lotion after each wash.

Cool Compresses

After the dressing has been removed, applying a cool compress to an itchy incision can help relieve mild discomfort. A compress can be a clean towel or other thick fabric wrapped around ice or an item such as a bag of frozen vegetables. Frozen items should never be placed directly on the skin, as a too-cold compress can damage the sensitive skin of the wound site. Each application should last no more than 20 minutes, with an interval of 20 minutes between sessions.

Avoiding Irritation

Taking care of an incision from the beginning helps minimize future problems, but a healthy wound almost always itches to some degree. It might be tempting to scratch or rub the site, but touching it too much can lead to inflammation and more uncomfortable sensations. Scratching in particular increases the risk that infection might develop at or around the incision site, especially if the skin is broken.

It’s also important to avoid movement that puts undue stress on the incision site, and movement that does involve that area should be as gentle as possible. Even though it’s a good idea to avoid touching the incision too often, it’s very useful to examine it regularly. A daily inspection when washing or otherwise caring for the incision makes it easier to detect changes that might signify infection or improper healing.

Medications

Many people find they need over-the-counter medications to combat the uncomfortable sensations they experience. Once the incision can be fully submersed in water, it is usually acceptable to apply anti-itch cream to the area around the incision. Because there are several types of creams, including anesthetics, antihistamines, and steroids, it’s best to ask a medical expert which type is most appropriate for you. This is particularly important for anyone with sensitive skin, as some of these skin creams can trigger dermatitis in susceptible people.

When to Get Professional Help

If an incision becomes overwhelmingly itchy to the point where over-the-counter preparations aren’t relieving the discomfort, a medical professional might be able to help by prescribing a stronger cream. Itching that's getting steadily worse over time, rather than better, can indicate an infection or a problem with the stitches, if you have them. Other changes at the site, such as inflammation, increasing pain or tenderness, redness, an unpleasant odor, and heat, are also signs of possible infection. It’s important to get prompt medical attention if any of these develop, even if the symptoms seem mild, as even minimal signs of infection can delay or prevent a wound healing.

Why Are My Incisions Itchy?

Whether your surgery was large or small, you will likely experience at least some itching sensations afterward at the incision site. No one likes the idea of an itchy wound, and some people even might think that it means there is an infection. Still, save for extreme cases, continuous itchiness at the incision site as you heal indicates new cell growth and healing progress.

What Causes the Itch?

As your incisions heal, the growth of new nerve cells can cause a feeling similar to being itchy or tingly. Another reason your incision might be itchy is due to the histamines released at the incision site due to new cell growth. Histamines are renowned for causing itchy, tingly, or uncomfortable feelings on and around the irritated spot. Dry skin can also exacerbate the issue due to surgical ointments and creams.

Is It Normal After Surgery for Incisions To Be Itchy?

So long as your incision isn't grossly irritated, mild itchiness is normal and okay. As your skin and nerve cells regrow, you aren’t likely to avoid the sensations that go along with the process.

However, giving in to the urge to scratch the itchy incisions is not okay. Scratching incisions could loosen stitches, adhesives, or staples and disrupt cell growth. Worse, scratching incision sites risks infection topically and internally, particularly if the skin is broken.

It can be challenging to control scratching an itch in some cases. When you sleep or absent-mindedly scratch before realizing your error are instances that can be difficult to manage. The best way to ensure that your itchy wounds are healing and safe is to keep them clean and covered.

What To Put on Itchy Surgical Incision?

The best way to care for a surgical incision is to carefully follow your doctor's post-surgery orders. In most cases, you will be sent home with plenty of dressing and cleaning supplies to ensure that healing is prompt and proper. Likewise, if you begin to experience signs of severe irritation or infection, you should contact the surgeon's office again and seek medical attention.

Treatments

Scratching an itchy incision isn't the best idea, as frustrating as it might be. The more you leave the wound to heal, the faster it will do so and rid you of the sensations. Several over-the-counter treatments can help reduce irritation.

Compresses 

Alternating hot and cold compresses can help stimulate the incision site without scratching the itch. The actual sensation is that of new nerve and cell growth, and hot/cold therapy is an apt approach to soothing the area. Be sure to keep alternations short; prolonged exposure to heat or cold can hinder cell growth.

  • Towel compresses 
  • Heating pads 
  • Hot water bottles 
  • Ice packs 
  • Frozen vegetable packs 

Topicals

Topical analgesics relieve pain in targeted areas where the product is applied. The ingredients typically cause a cooling then warming sensation that reduces the other sensations, such as pain, itching, or irritation. Lidocaine spray is a topical anesthetic that’s beneficial. It leaves only a slight residue that lessens interference with the incision site while efficiently numbing the affected area.

How To Take Care of an Itchy Surgical Incision?

Following the doctor's order is the first order of business in taking great care of any incision, but all aftercare will be similar. All surgical incisions require cleaning, medication, wrapping, and monitoring for best results.

Cleaning 

Remove any wrapping and wash your wound daily with an antibacterial soap. Be sure to thoroughly but gently cleanse the area while avoiding scrubbing or pulling at any parts of the incision.

Medication 

For most incisions, an antibacterial or antibiotic cream, in addition to a basic oral antibiotic, is part of the aftercare prescription. Follow the directions and use as prescribed.

In some cases, depending on the severity of the surgery, your doctor might have also prescribed pain management for the first few days of recovery. Be sure to manage your medications diligently or enlist the help of a friend or loved one to ensure you take the right medicine at the right time as you heal.

Wrapping 

Some medical professionals prefer to let the site heal naturally with open-air exposure to reduce dampness. Whatever method prescribed is best, but consult with your caregiver about sleeping with wrapping on to avoid any snags or unconscious scratching in your sleep.

Monitoring 

While you heal, keep an eye on your progress. If something looks and feels wrong, it probably is. Your incision site will be tender but should not be hot or have shooting pain. Consult your doctor if you need attention before your post-operation follow-up appointment.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1002342 — On Nov 02, 2019

I had rods put in my back 4 months ago and the itching is terrible! I've tried about every method and creams, but the best so far is a hot washcloth with a gentle rubdown.

By anon993665 — On Dec 03, 2015

Antihistamine drugs are not steroids.

By SarahGen — On Oct 27, 2013

When I had an itchy incision, I used my daughter's diaper rash cream on it. The lanolin and zinc found in baby rash creams work quite well.

By bear78 — On Oct 27, 2013

@burcidi-- I know how annoying an itchy incision can be. The good news is that you're healing up nicely.

You don't have to use steroid creams for itch relief. I'm sure that there are non-steroid anti-itch creams over the counter.

You could always use pure aloe vera gel. Aloe vera gel is my favorite. It's very soothing and stops itching. It's also natural, so it won't cause any harm. You can also get aloe vera gel with lidocaine (a topical pain reliever) added for those extra itchy nights. Believe it or not, topical pain relievers stop itching too. I think it's because of their numbing effect.

By burcidi — On Oct 26, 2013

I had stitches removed two days ago. Since yesterday, the incision area is itching so much! I don't want to use an antihistamine cream because I don't like using steroids. Plus, the incision area is still red and sensitive and I don't want to irritate it.

Aside from washing the incision area with soapy water, what else can I do? The itching is especially worse at night and it's difficult to not scratch it.

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