You had surgery to treat a lung condition. Now that you're going home, follow your health care provider's instructions on how to care for yourself at home while you heal. Use the information below as a reminder.
When You're in the Hospital
You may have spent time in the intensive care unit (ICU) before going to a regular hospital room. A chest tube to drain fluid from inside your chest was in place part or all of the time you were in the hospital. You may still have it when you go home.
What to Expect at Home
It will take 6 to 8 weeks to get your energy back. You may have pain when you move your arm, twist your upper body, and when you breathe in deeply.
Ask your surgeon how much weight is safe for you to lift. You may be told not to lift or carry anything heavier than 10 pounds, or 4.5 kilograms (about a gallon, or 4 liters of milk), for 2 weeks after video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery and 6 to 8 weeks after open lung surgery.
You may walk 2 or 3 times a day. Start with short distances and slowly increase how far you walk. If you have stairs in your home, go up and down slowly. Take one step at a time. Set up your home so that you do not have to climb stairs too often.
Remember you will need extra time to rest after being active. If it hurts when you do something, stop doing that activity.
- Do not do yardwork for 4 to 8 weeks after surgery. Do not use a push mower for at least 8 weeks. Ask your surgeon or nurse when you can start doing these things again.
- You can start doing light housework 2 weeks after surgery.
It is probably OK to start sexual activity when you can climb 2 flights of stairs without being short of breath. Check with your surgeon.
Make sure your home is safe as you are recovering. For example, remove throw rugs to prevent tripping and falling. To stay safe in the bathroom, install grab bars to help you get in and out of the tub or shower.
For the first 6 weeks after surgery, be careful how you use your arms and upper body when you move. Press a pillow over your incision when you need to cough or sneeze.
Ask your surgeon when it is OK to start driving again. Do not drive if you are taking narcotic pain medicine. Drive only short distances at first. Do not drive when traffic is heavy.
It is common to take 4 to 8 weeks off work after lung surgery. Ask your surgeon when you can go back to work. You may need to adjust your work activities when you first go back, or work only part-time for a while.
Your surgeon will give you a prescription for pain medicine. Get it filled on your way home from the hospital so you have it when you need it. Take the medicine when you start having pain. Waiting too long to take it will allow the pain to get worse than it needs to be.
You will use a breathing device to help you build up strength in your lung. It does this by helping you take deep breaths. Use it 4 to 6 times a day for the first 2 weeks after surgery.
If you smoke, ask your provider for help quitting. Do not let others smoke in your house.
If you have a chest tube:
- There may be some skin soreness around the tube.
- Clean around the tube once a day.
- If the tube comes out, cover the hole with a clean dressing and call your surgeon right away.
- Keep the dressing (bandage) on the wound for 1 to 2 days after the tube has been removed.
Change the dressing on your incisions every day or as often as instructed. You will be told when you no longer need to keep the dressing on your incisions. Wash the wound area with mild soap and water.
You may take a shower once all of your dressings have been removed.
- Do not try to wash or scrub off the strips of tape or glue. It will fall off on its own in about a week.
- Do not soak in a bathtub, pool, or hot tub until your surgeon tells you it is ok.
Sutures (stitches) are usually removed after 7 days. Staples are usually removed after 7 to 14 days. If you have the kind of sutures that are inside your chest, your body will absorb them and you will not need to have them removed.
When to Call the Doctor
Contact your surgeon or nurse if you have any of the following:
- Fever of 101°F (38.3°C), or higher
- Incisions are bleeding, red, warm to the touch, or have a thick, yellow, green, or milky drainage coming from them
- Pain medicines do not ease your pain
- It is hard to breathe
- Cough that does not go away, or you are coughing up mucus that is yellow or green, or has blood in it
- Cannot drink or eat
- Your leg is swelling or you have leg pain
- Your chest, neck, or face is swelling
- Crack or hole in the chest tube, or the tube comes out
- Cough up blood
Thoracotomy - discharge; Lung tissue removal - discharge; Pneumonectomy - discharge; Lobectomy - discharge; Lung biopsy - discharge; Thoracoscopy - discharge; Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery - discharge; VATS - discharge
Dexter EU. Perioperative care of the thoracic surgical patient. In: Selke FW, del Nido PJ, Swanson SJ, eds. Sabiston and Spencer Surgery of the Chest. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 4.
Wald O, Izhar U, Sugarbaker DJ. Lung, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery: The Biological Basis of Modern Surgical Practice. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 58.
Review Date 1/23/2023
Updated by: Mary C. Mancini, MD, PhD, Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Shreveport, LA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.