What happens after surgery?

How long you’re in hospital for depends on the operation you have. With reconstructive surgery, it may take a few weeks. After a bigger operation, you may be in intensive care for a few days. You usually have some drips, drains and tubes attached to you. The nurses remove these as you begin to recover.

These may include:

  • Drips – a tube going into a vein in your arm or neck to give you fluids.
  • Drains – thin tubes that collect fluid from your wound.
  • A feeding tube – that goes into your stomach to give you liquid food. The nurses remove it when you can eat and swallow.
  • A tracheostomy tube – a small opening into your windpipe held open by a tube you breathe through. It’s removed after a few days when the swelling from surgery goes down and you can breathe easily.

Your surgeon will prepare you in advance if you’re likely to need a tracheostomy.

Some people keep their feeding tube if they are having radiotherapy after surgery. It’s removed when radiotherapy side effects go away.

After the operation

Some people have surgery as a day patient, but surgery often involves a stay in hospital. This may be for several days or for up to a few weeks. Your length of stay will depend on the type of surgery and whether or not you’ve had reconstructive surgery.

After your operation, you will be encouraged to start moving around as soon as possible. This is an essential part of your recovery. If you have to stay in bed, it’s important to do regular leg movements and deep-breathing exercises. A physiotherapist will explain these to you.

If you’ve had a bigger operation, you may spend some time in intensive care immediately after the operation. This is a ward where you will be closely checked and given one-to-one nursing care for as long as necessary to help you recover.

After the operation, it’s likely that you will wake up with a number of drips, drains and tubes attached to you. These will gradually be removed as you recover.


Operations to the mouth and throat area usually cause quite a lot of swelling. This can make eating and drinking uncomfortable for a time. Because of this, you’ll probably wake up from the operation with a tube going into a vein in your arm or your neck (an intravenous drip). The nurses will give you fluids through this tube for a few days. The drip will be removed once you’re able to drink fluids again.

Drains and dressings

Depending on the extent of your surgery, you may have one or two thin, plastic drainage tubes coming from the operation area. The tubes will have bottles attached to them to collect fluid from the wound. This helps the wound to heal. Drains usually stay in place for about 2–7 days.

If you’ve had reconstructive surgery using tissue taken from another part of your body, you may have stitches, a drain and a dressing on this area too.

When you go home, your wound and drain (if it’s still in) can be checked and dressed by a district nurse if necessary. Or you may be asked to go back to the hospital every few days to have it checked there. If you don’t have the type of stitches that dissolve, you’ll usually have your stitches or staples removed about seven days after your operation.

Feeding tube

You may not be able to eat for a short time while tissue heals. This means you may have to get the nutrition you need through a feeding tube that goes into your stomach. This may be put in before or during the operation.

There are two types of feeding tube:

  • A gastrostomy tube, which is a tube that is passed through the tummy wall (abdomen) into your stomach. This is sometimes called a PEG or RIG tube.
  • A nasogastric (NG) tube, which is a thin tube that is passed up your nose, down your throat and into your stomach.

The dietitian will talk to you about this before your operation and will provide support afterwards. They’ll prescribe high-protein, high-calorie, liquid food to be given through the tube.

Once the tissues in your mouth and throat have healed, your surgeon may arrange for you to have a swallowing assessment by a speech and language therapist. When you can eat and swallow safely, the feeding tube can be removed.

If you’re going to have radiotherapy after your surgery, you may need a feeding tube until all your treatment is completed. This is because radiotherapy can give you a sore mouth and throat, which can make it difficult for you to eat.

If you need to go home with a feeding tube, the nurses will be able to teach you and/or your carers how to look after it safely. They will also arrange community support to visit your home. A small number of people will have a gastrostomy tube (PEG or RIG tube) for a longer period of time.


You may have a small tube (catheter) to drain urine from your bladder into a collecting bag. This will stop you having to get up to pass urine and also helps the doctors know your kidneys are working well. It is usually removed after a couple of days.

Tracheostomy tube

Sometimes surgery to the mouth or throat can cause temporary swelling. This can narrow your airway and make it difficult for you to breathe. If the type of surgery you’re having is likely to cause this problem, the surgeon will create a small opening into your windpipe, called a tracheostomy or stoma, for you to breathe through.

The opening is made in the lower part of the front of your neck. It’s held open by a small plastic tube that is a few centimetres long. When the swelling from your operation goes down (after about 5–7 days) and you can breathe easily, the tube is taken out. The opening will then be left to heal over naturally.

Position of a tracheotomy tube
Position of a tracheotomy tube

View a large version

Read a description of this image

A tracheotomy tube
A tracheotomy tube

View a large version

Read a description of this image

If you have a tracheostomy, usually you won’t be able to speak with the tube in place. However, you will be able to use a pen and paper, or a mobile phone or tablet computer to communicate with other people.

If you’re likely to have a tracheostomy for a short time after your operation, your surgeon will explain this to you in advance. You’ll also have time to ask the specialist nurse or speech and language therapist questions about it before you have your surgery.

Back to Surgery explained

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.

Recovery after surgery

As you recover, you may be coping with some effects of surgery. You surgeon will explain how these can be managed.