Skin grafts are thin sheets of healthy skin removed from one part of the body (donor site) and put on another part. Grafts can be used to treat skin damaged by burns, infection, or other injury. If possible, the doctor takes healthy skin from areas that are usually covered by clothes or are not easily seen.
You will have a bandage over the skin graft. The area may be sore for 1 to 2 weeks. Keep the area of the skin graft dry while it heals, unless your doctor gives you other instructions. If possible, prop up the area of your body that has the skin graft. Keeping it raised will reduce swelling and fluid buildup that can cause problems with the graft. You also will have a bandage on the donor site.
Try to avoid getting sunlight on the skin graft for several months. This helps to prevent a permanent change of color in the grafted skin. And for at least 3 weeks after surgery, avoid exercise that stretches the skin graft, unless your doctor gives you other instructions.
If the graft was placed on your legs, arms, hands, or feet, you may need physical therapy to prevent scar tissue from limiting your movement. This therapy is very important. It may involve wearing splints and doing stretches and range-of-motion exercises. These may be painful, but they help you to heal properly.
It may take months for you to regain some feeling in the grafted area. The feeling will be different than it was before your injury.
You may not have sweat glands in the skin graft area. If the grafted area is large, this may make it hard for the area to cool off when you are hot. The grafted area may not have oil glands. This can make the skin graft dry and flaky. After your graft heals, you may need to use lotion to keep the skin moist. The skin graft may not grow hair.
Sometimes skin grafts do not "take" or survive after being transferred. If the skin graft doesn't work, you may need another graft.
This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for you to recover. But each person recovers at a different rate, and certain areas of the body take longer to heal than others. Follow the steps below to feel better as quickly as possible.
How can you care for yourself at home?
- Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover.
- Try to walk each day, unless the grafted area is on your foot or leg. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow to the skin grafts.
- Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
- Your doctor will tell you when you can return to work. It depends on the size of the skin graft, what part of your body was grafted, the type of work you do, and how you feel.
- Your doctor will tell you when you can take a shower. Do not take a bath for the first 2 weeks, or until your doctor tells you it is okay.
- Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weight lifting, or aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
- You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
- Drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to).
- You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fiber supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.
- Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. He or she will also give you instructions about taking any new medicines.
- If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
- Be safe with medicines. Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
- If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
- If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
- If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
- If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
- Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
- Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.
Skin graft and donor site care
- Leave the bandages on the skin graft and donor site until your doctor says you can take them off. You probably will receive instructions on how to change the bandages. Follow these instructions closely.
- Keep the area clean and dry, unless your doctor tells you differently.
- Do not rub the skin graft for 3 to 4 weeks.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
When should you call for help?
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
- You passed out (lost consciousness).
- You have severe trouble breathing.
- You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
- You have loose stitches, or your skin graft comes loose.
- You have bleeding from the skin graft.
- You have symptoms of a blood clot in your leg (called a deep vein thrombosis), such as:
- Pain in the calf, back of the knee, thigh, or groin.
- Redness and swelling in your leg or groin.
- You have signs of infection, such as:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
- Red streaks leading from the incision.
- Pus draining from the incision.
- A fever.
- You are sick to your stomach or cannot keep fluids down.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You do not get better as expected.