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HealthInfo Canterbury

What is a skin graft?

A skin graft is an area of skin taken from one part of your body to cover an injury on another part of your body. This could be because of any injury such as a burn, or after you have had skin cancer surgically removed. There are two types of skin grafts:

Skin grafts are done in an operating theatre under a local anaesthetic (an injection that makes the area numb) or a general anaesthetic (when you go to sleep).

Usually you have a skin graft as an inpatient but sometimes you can have one as an outpatient. The type of operation you need depends on how big the area is, and where it is. Sometimes the surgeon makes lots of little slits in the graft, making it look like a mesh. This means it can cover a bigger area.

The surgeon transfers the graft to its new site and places it so the edges overlap the surrounding skin. They stitch, staple or glue the graft into position, and cover it with a dressing. Sometimes the surgeon will put a special dressing over the graft and stitch it into place to make sure it doesn't move. This happens especially for grafts on your face.

Body fluid from the wound feeds the graft, keeping it alive while new blood vessels grow into it. It takes about five days for this to happen. As it heals, it attaches to the wound site and becomes permanent.

Usually plastic surgeons do skin grafts, but sometimes they are done by dermatologists or by general practitioners with special training.

Donor sites

A donor site is the area where the healthy skin is taken from to use as the graft. If you have a split skin graft, the raw area that is left is like a graze and usually takes up to two weeks to heal. If you have a full thickness graft, then the wound is stitched together and heals like any other stitched wound. Skin grafts are usually taken from your thigh or arm, but they can come from other areas.

Scars

You will have scars on the grafted and donor sites. The donor scar will be less noticeable than the one on the grafted area. The grafted area will be a different colour, and feel different, to the surrounding skin. Scars generally get better with time but they don't disappear. A few people get raised, red and thickened scars (called keloid or hypertrophic). Tell your surgeon if you have had this type of scar before.

Risks and possible complications

The risks and possible complications will vary depending on your overall health, the size of the procedure you need, where it will be, and whether it will be done under local or general anaesthetic.

In general this surgery is safe, but all surgery has some risk of infections, bleeding, delayed healing and reactions to anaesthetic or medications. As well, skin grafts can sometimes fail. Talk to your doctor about the specific risks you face.

For information on how to care for your dressing, see Going home after a skin graft.

On the next page: What to expect in hospital

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Approved by clinical director, Plastic Surgery Department, Canterbury DHB. Reviewed May 2017.

Sources

Image courtesy of Praisaeng at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Page reference: 88162

Review key: HISGR-87518