What Should You Do If You Are Sick Before Surgery?

Find Out What to do When Illness Strikes Before Surgery

Sore Throat Before Surgery.

For many people, preparing for surgery is a process that takes weeks or even months before the procedure is actually done.  There may be tests and more tests, a search for the right surgeon or a second opinion, and even time spent trying to decide where to have the surgery performed.  All of that careful planning for the best possible surgery can be turned upside down if you start to feel ill prior to your procedure.

It would be wrong to assume that feeling unwell will lead to a cancelled or rescheduled procedure.  If your illness is related to your surgery, and the surgery can improve your condition, it is less likely that your procedure will be cancelled.  It also depends on how long the condition typically takes to resolve.  Strep throat, for example, is no longer contagious after 24 hours of antibiotics and might not delay surgery.  

For example, if you are having severe chest pain due to a coronary artery problem, and you are scheduled for open heart surgery to improve that condition, the procedure would likely go on as scheduled.   

On the other hand, if you were scheduled for an elective surgery and you were diagnosed with influenza the day prior to surgery, it is unlikely that you will have surgery as scheduled.  The nature of the surgery and the severity of the illness are often the deciding factors in whether or not surgery will be rescheduled.

  The final decision typically rests in the hands of the surgeon performing the surgery.

What to Do If You Are Sick Before Surgery

If you are sick in the days leading up to surgery, be sure to tell your surgeon.  Only your surgeon can decide if your symptoms are severe enough to lead to the delay or cancellation of your surgery.

  It may be tempting to wait until the day of surgery to tell someone about your illness, and hope you will have improved by then, but you may be charged some fees for the cancelled surgery if it is cancelled at the last minute.

If you are experiencing a minor illness in the week prior to surgery, or a moderate to severe illness in the 2 weeks before surgery, notify your surgeon immediately.  

Conditions that may lead to the rescheduling of surgery:

  • Infection in the week or two prior to surgery.  Infections come in many forms, ranging from minor (urinary tract infection, skin infection) to major (sepsis, meningitis).  A minor infection is less likely to change your surgery plans, a major infection can lead to a surgery that is rescheduled or cancelled until further notice.
  • Influenza. A bout of the flu can be a miserable experience, but is typically over within a week.  Serious complications of the flu are fairly rare, so most people with a case of the flu will see a brief delay before the procedure. 
  • Breathing problems can lead to the delay or cancellation of a procedure.  Patients who have general anesthesia are at increased risk for breathing difficulties, including pneumonia.  For that reason, pulmonary function tests are often performed to make sure that the patient is breathing as well as possible, in an effort to minimize the risk of breathing problems after surgery.  Temporary breathing issues such as a severe cough, bronchitis, wheezing or shortness of breath will often delay a procedure until the issue has resolved.  A new diagnosis of a severe breathing problem may postpone surgery or lead to a cancelled surgery.
  • Uncontrolled diabetes can increase the risks of complication after surgery.  High glucose levels can increase the risk of infections, slow wound healing and increase recovery times.  Poorly controlled diabetes may lead to a delayed surgery until the glucose is better controlled.
  • Asthma is not a contraindication for surgery, but a serious increase in asthma symptoms in the days or weeks leading up to surgery may lead to a delay in surgery until the problem improves.
  • Vomiting is typically cause for the delay of surgery unless the surgery will correct the problem that is causing vomiting.  Vomiting during surgery can cause aspiration pneumonia, a serious complication after surgery.  Vomiting after surgery can increase pain, put unnecessary stress on some types of incisions, and can make the recovery a process a miserable one.  
  • A fever can lead to a delay in surgery, particularly if it is very high or unexplained.  A low grade temperature may not lead to a delay in surgery, but a severe surgery will likely delay a procedure, especially when the reason for the fever is not known.
  • A contagious illness, such as chicken pox or measles, would delay your surgery until you are no longer contagious unless your procedure absolutely could not wait until the illness passes.


Anesthesia While a Child Has a Cold.  Society for Pediatric Anesthesia.  Accessed January, 2015.  http://www.pedsanesthesia.org/patiented/uri.iphtml

Continue Reading