Infection After Plastic Surgery

An infection can wreak havoc on your results. Fortunately, the risk is low

woman recovering in hospital
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Infection is always a potential risk after any type of surgery, and plastic surgery is no exception. Even though many plastic surgeries are done to change or enhance some aspect of a person's appearance, rather than for medical reasons, such procedures still involve making incisions in the skin. Because the skin provides a natural barrier against bacteria that can cause infection, any opening in the skin can leave the door wide open for unwanted bugs.

An infection that takes hold after surgery can cause a person to become very ill. In the case of plastic surgery, it also can have an enormous impact on the final outcome—how you look afterward. If an incision becomes infected, for example, it may not heal properly, leaving an unsightly scar—not exactly what you're looking for after a procedure meant to enhance your appearance.

Sometimes an infection after a procedure such as a tummy tuck requires an incision to be reopened in order to drain pus or infected fluid, again creating a more noticeable and unsightly scar. And in the case of a surgery that involves an implant, such as breast augmentation or chin augmentation, if an infection manages to spread from the incision to the implant, the implant may have to be removed. Most doctors will wait three to six months before trying to place a new implant. 

Pre-Op Precautions

Preventing infection after plastic surgery actually starts before a surgeon makes the first cut.The room you'll have your surgery in will be cleaned and sterilized, the doctor and staff will be dressed in proper surgical attire (scrubs, gloves, face masks), the area of your body to be operated on will be prepped with an antiseptic—all part of what's called aseptic technique.

If despite these infection-preventive practices bacteria still find their way into an incision, it's likely not a problem: In the majority of cases, the body's own defense mechanisms will step in and destroy the invaders before they can settle in and multiply. All in all, the risk of infection after plastic surgery for most people is very low—about 1 percent.

Some folks are more susceptible than others, though, including those who have diabetes, smoke, take steroids, or have certain vascular conditions. The longer a procedure takes the higher the risk of infection as well. 

What You Can Do to Avoid Infection

This doesn't mean if you're planning to have plastic surgery there's nothing you need to do to help protect yourself from infection. Start by making sure the doctor you work with is fully qualified and experienced. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) advises looking for a plastic surgeon who's board-certified. He or she will have specific instructions for how you should prepare for your procedure. Follow them! If you smoke and you're advised to quit, for example, do it. The healthier you are going into surgery, the better able your immune system will be able to kick in if necessary. 

After your procedure, it's important to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of an infection. Call your surgeon right away if you experience any of these: 

  • Fever greater than 101.5 F
  • Increased pain at the incision site
  • Increased redness at the incision site
  • Increased warmth at the incision site
  • Foul odor coming from the incision
  • Discharge draining from the incision

    If it turns out you've developed an infection after plastic surgery, you'll probably be prescribed an oral antibiotic. If more drastic treatment is needed—your incision must be opened and drained, or an implant removed—it's likely you'll have a more prominent scar. The surgeon may be able to revise that later. You may need to be hospitalized for a severe infection so you can receive intravenous antibiotics. Remember, though, that infection after plastic surgery is rare. Follow your surgeon's instructions and you should get the result you wanted.

    Sources:

    Janis JE, ed. Essentials of Plastic Surgery, 2nd Edition. St. Louis: Quality Medical Publishing, 2014.

    Leaper D. Prevention and treatment of surgical site infection: Summary of NICE guidance. British Medical Journal 2008 337:a1924.

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