It’s sometimes necessary to have one or more surgical drains in place after an operation. Here we explain what they are, why they’re used and how to look after them.

What are surgery drains?

Drains are plastic tubes that your surgeon places in your wound when you have some types of operation. The tube comes out of your body near your wound and is usually connected to a plastic bottle, but sometimes a plastic drainage bag. Often, the bottle is under suction to encourage fluid to drain out. There is a plastic suction indicator in the lid of the bottle (it looks a bit like a concertina) that tells you the suction is still active. 

It’s very important to keep the bottle or bag below the level of the wound, particularly if it isn’t suctioned. If you don’t, fluid could backtrack into the wound, increasing the risk of infection.

When and why are they used?
Surgeons use drains when they think a lot of fluid might be produced as your wound starts to heal. The tissues that are cut when you have an operation tend to leak fluid for a while. If this fluid collects under the skin, it can cause swelling, which can be painful and put strain on your stitches. If left, the fluid also increases your risk of a wound infection.

Drains are usually left in place until the amount of fluid coming out slows. Often this is while you are still in hospital. But if your wound is still producing a lot of fluid and otherwise you are well enough to leave hospital, you may go home with the drain in place. 

Your nurse may ask you to measure how much is draining each day or you may need to go back to the hospital daily to have it measured. If you are measuring the drainage yourself, your nurse will make sure you know how to do this before you leave the ward. 

How long will I have a drain in place?
Drains are left in place until the wound has stopped producing fluid. Your doctor or nurse will tell you the threshold for having it removed – for example, if it’s draining less than 30mls in 24 hours.

How long this takes varies depending on the operation you’ve had. It’s usually up to a week. For some types of breast surgery, it may be longer, up to two weeks. For other operations, it can be several weeks.

How should I look after my drain at home?
Your wound and the area where the drain comes out will be covered with a waterproof dressing when you leave the hospital. If so, it’s OK for you to shower. Just rinse the area with clean water and don’t use any soap or creams. 

If you’ve been asked to measure the drainage, do this at the same time each day. Your nurse will show you how to do it, but usually it’s simply a question of putting the bottle on a level surface and drawing a line level with the top of the fluid. Wash your hands before and after handling the bottle. Check that the suction indicator shows that the bottle is still suctioned. 

If you have a drain in for a while, you may need to change the bottle. Again, your nurse will show you how to do this and give you spare bottles to take home with you. If you don’t feel confident about it, do say. You’ll be able to come back to the ward to have it done or may be able to have a district nurse visit.

You might find the hardest thing is remembering that the bottle is attached to you! It’s easy to get up and start to walk away without thinking about it, or get the tube hooked round something. Some hospitals give you a cotton bag to put the bottle in. You can carry it over your shoulder or tie it round your waist.  The Recovery Brobe is the first bra and robe combination designed for breast cancer surgery recovery, and includes two pockets on either side to hold post-operative fluid drains, so you don't have to worry about the drains getting in your way.

Your nurse will give you the phone number of the ward to ring if you have any problems or are worried at any point. Do ring them if:

  • You notice the drainage bottle is no longer suctioned
  • The drainage tube becomes disconnected from the bottle
  • The bottle is getting full and you don’t have a spare
  • The drain comes out
  • You have any signs of infection, such as a temperature, redness, heat, pain, swelling or pus leaking from the wound or drain site

If your drain falls out, don’t panic. Cover the area with a clean towel or piece of gauze and apply gentle but firm pressure for about 15 minutes or until the drain site is no longer leaking. Call the ward for advice.