In 2013 alone, there were an estimated 157,500 surgical site infections associated with inpatient surgeries, according to the CDC. Although health care advances are continuously made, the rate is still too high.

A surgical site infection (SSI) is, according to the CDC, an infection that occurs after surgery in the part of the body where the surgery took place. SSIs include infections exclusive to the skin, as well as more serious infections affecting tissues under the skin, organs or implanted material. SSIs take a substantial economic toll, too, roughly $3.5 to $10 billion annually. 

“Patients have to be their own advocate in their own health care, and think about their state of health before undergoing surgery,” declares Lisa Spruce, director of evidence-based Perioperative Practice. Here, Dr. Spruce lists a few crucial areas where patients can be their own advocates leading up to, and after surgery.

1. Full disclosure

From prescriptions to supplements to herbs, even if only temporary, your doctors should know about it, as it could affect your surgery and care. Even with what may feel like early symptoms of a cold, postponing surgery may be necessary. Chronic diseases such as diabetes also impact healing, so the primary care doctor and surgeon should all be knowledgeable of the condition and upcoming procedures.

2. Self-care 

Leading up to surgery, improve your nutrition and daily activity to encourage internal oxygen flow and a stronger recovery. For smokers, the most important thing is to quit smoking 4 to 6 weeks before surgery. But even 24 hours could decrease risk of infection.

3. Listen and ask 

It may sound simple, but following your doctor’s instructions is central to preventing infection. This includes everything from taking medication properly, if applicable, and also bathing, getting around the house, and all elements of self-care that your surgeon advises on. If you have questions, ask. Even if you can’t think of specific questions, don’t hesitate to talk through certain elements where you don’t feel as clear.

4. Post-surgery plan

Patients should coordinate with a family member or close friend to discuss their post-operation instructions, since they will be groggy after waking up. And for the days following surgery: “If your surgeon says you can, and you’re able to, start getting up and moving around to increase mobility,” says Dr. Spruce. “You have a better chance of not acquiring infection if you’re moving around.” 

5. Remain alert

It’s also crucial to ensure that patients can recognize early signs of infection, so that they can contact their doctors immediately. Some symptoms include swelling, redness, puss, blood drainage from the incision sight, blisters, fever and chills. Be sure to know which symptoms are common for your type of incision.

6. Second opinions

When it comes to asking these types of questions, patients don’t always realize how much their own understanding and influence comes into play. Check with a health care provider for more information, either verbal or written, to provide guidance. “A lot of patients have a, ‘This can’t happen to me’ type of attitude,” says Phil Barie, M.D. and executive director at the Surgical Infection Society Foundation for Research and Education. “But it can.”

While each operation and patient carry varying levels of risk, “It all comes down to a dialogue,” says Dr. Barie. “Patients need to make sure all of their questions are answered, and they have to follow the instructions they receive. All of these things are factors that the patient can bring to the partnership and help the surgeon reduce the risk.”