When to Call the Doctor After Bowel Surgery

Doctor speaking with patient
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If you've ever been hospitalized for surgery, there is a very good chance you were sent home with a vague set of discharge instructions encouraging you to "watch for signs of infection, report fever, and contact your doctor for a follow up visit". Unfortunately, those instructions really don't mean much to the non-medical person, who might be suffering a complication but unaware of the need to report said symptom before it becomes a serious problem.


There are many different types of bowel surgeries used to treat colon cancer, obstructions, and even Irritable Bowel Diseases such as Ulcerative Colitis. Regardless of the type of surgery, the data shows that over 11 percent of the people having bowel surgery will go back into the hospital within a month. 

There are two circumstances where you will always seek emergent care following surgery, which include developing shortness of breath or chest pain. These symptoms require immediate treatment in the form of emergency assistance. Do not call your surgeon with these symptoms -- report to the emergency room. 

What Your Surgeon Wants You to Know

Your surgeon wants you to recover and regain health, not return to the hospital with complications from bowel surgery. Therefore, he or she will take every effort to ensure that you receive proper care according to the current medical guidelines. While you are hospitalized, your nurses assess your surgical wounds, intake and general recovery.

However, once you leave the hospital, reporting of any new symptoms is up to you and your caregiver. 

Reporting a Fever

Current guidelines suggest reporting a temperature of 101.5 or greater to your surgeon immediately. The elevated temperature can indicate infection, which must be treated to prevent complications.

The infection might be in your lungs from lying sedentary after surgery, in the bowels, or even from the surgical wound itself. If your doctor told you a lower reading to report, follow his or her instructions. In most circumstances, anything greater than 100.4 degrees is technically a "fever". Remember to take your temperature before drinking or eating anything to avoid false readings. 

Check Your Surgical Wound

If your surgeon gave you specific instructions for the care of your surgical wound -- such as do not touch the dressing until I see you again -- follow them. However, you can still monitor the area surrounding your surgical wound for unwanted symptoms to include drainage or warm, red skin. A little bit of dried drainage might be present on your dressing upon your hospital discharge. However, contact your surgeon without delay if the drainage from your wound is leaking through the dressing, or get emergency assistance if you cannot reach your doctor and the drainage is saturating or bright red.

Nothing In and Nothing Out

The American College of Surgeons pole agreed that no bowel movements (or ostomy activity) for 24 hours after bowel surgery should be reported to your doctor. Depending on your surgery, it may be a completely normal side effect of the procedure that will self resolve. Likewise, let your surgeon know if you have been unable to keep down food or liquids for 24 hours. You can quickly become dehydrated, which can complicate your recovery and put additional strain on your kidneys. If your urine becomes dark or tea colored, or stops completely, notify your surgeon that day.

Abdominal Swelling

You know your body the best. If your surgeon ordered it, your nursing staff might have been measuring your abdomen daily while you were hospitalized. This was to alert them to any swelling by changes in measurement, which you might have already noticed. Unless otherwise instructed, swelling of your abdomen is not normal and should be reported

Escalating Pain

Unfortunately, some pain is usually anticipated and completely normal following bowel surgery. Dependent on what type of bowel surgery you had, your surgeon potentially had to cut through skin, muscle and even nerves. However, if your pain is increasing, rather than decreasing over the first few days at home, you need to notify your surgery. Pain is a normal part of recovery, but it can also indicate our body signaling that something isn't right. If your doctor sent you home with prescription pain medications, it will help to keep a log. Record the date and time that you last took the medication, location of your pain, and severity of the pain based on a 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain) scale.


American College of Surgeons. (February 2013). Specific Warning Signs in Colorectal Surgical Patients Released. Accessed online via the Journal Press Release on April 21, 2015.

Tsujinaka. S. & Konishi, F. (March 2011). Drain vs No Drain After Colorectal Surgery. Indian Journal of Surgical Oncology. Accessed via PubMed on April 22, 2015.

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