Scars and Wounds

A wound is a physical injury to the body that disrupts its structure. The wound may be under the skin, may affect only the skin surface, or might affect the skin on the surface and beneath it. An incision (cut) from surgery is a wound. A wound also can be caused by a fall or accident, tumor growth, pressure on bony areas, or radiation therapy. Proper care for a wound is important to protect it from infection and help it heal. Scars are healed wounds.

What to look for

  • Redness or purple bruising of skin
  • Scaly, broken skin (see Pressure Sores)
  • Crusts, scabs, or cuts in the skin
  • Bleeding
  • Swelling
  • Drainage or pus
  • Warmth or heat at the affected area
  • Pain or tenderness

What the patient can do

  • Wash your hands well before and after changing a wound dressing. Never re-use dressings.
  • Always keep the wound clean. Unless you were given different instructions, clean the wound every day with soap and water, rinse well, and pat it dry with a clean towel.
  • Dress wounds as instructed, or use sterile, non-stick gauze. Use paper tape if you can.
  • Keep your dressing clean and dry. If it gets wet or dirty, change it right away.
  • If the wound is bleeding, clean it well and apply moderate pressure with a cool cloth or ice pack until the bleeding stops. Then continue with the dressing change.
  • Try not to put tape right on the skin. Use a “skin prep” solution to protect skin where the tape goes, or wrap gauze over the bandage and then tape the gauze. Check with your nurse or pharmacist about supplies.
  • Avoid scratching or rubbing the wound. Don’t remove scabs.
  • Eat citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, meat, fish, and eggs. They contain protein, vitamins, and minerals that help promote wound healing.

What caregivers can do

  • Help clean wounds or change dressings if the patient can’t do it alone. If you can, wear a fresh pair of disposable plastic gloves each time you clean the area and put on a new dressing. Wash your hands before and after changing a dressing, even if you wear gloves.
  • Be sure the patient has enough supplies to change the dressing as often as instructed.
  • Check for signs of infection (redness, swelling, tenderness, drainage or pus).

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Has a wound that bleeds for 15 minutes or longer
  • Has a wound that looks very red around the edges and is hot or swollen
  • Has more pain than usual at the wound site
  • Has a bad smell coming from the wound
  • Has yellow pus or greenish liquid that oozes from the wound
  • Has any changes in the skin around the wound
  • Has a fever of 100.5° F or higher when taken by mouth

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: May 17, 2016

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