A skin transplant, also known as a skin graft, occurs when a doctor removes a piece of skin from one part of the body and attaches it to another part of the body. Skin transplants are used to replace skin that has been damaged or lost because of infection, disease or burns; to cover wounds that have not healed; and after some surgeries. The primary types of skin grafts are full-thickness grafts and split-thickness grafts.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body and performs many vital functions, including protecting the body's insides and retaining heat, among others. Unlike many other organ transplants, a skin transplant cannot be successful if the tissue comes from an outside donor. Skin is used from human cadavers and pigs to temporarily cover wounds or damaged tissue, but eventually, the skin must be replaced as it is rejected by the body. A person cannot sign up to be a skin transplant donor, unless he or she would like to donate posthumously.
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The procedure for a skin transplant requires first locating skin that can be moved from one part of the body to another. Doctors usually choose a site that is hidden by clothing. In the case of a full-thickness graft, a more complicated procedure during which the full thickness of the skin is removed, the skin might be taken from the patient's abdominal area or back. Split-thickness grafts, which require the removal of only the top two layers of skin, are often removed from the inside of the thigh or the buttocks. The graft is then spread over the site needing skin and covered by sterile dressing for a period of a few days to a few weeks, depending on the type of transplant.
Skin transplants are performed while a patient is under general anesthesia. After the surgery, the new skin must be protected and allowed to heal. A person who has had a minor split-thickness graft might leave the hospital soon after surgery, but a person with a full-thickness graft might spend weeks recovering in the hospital. Skin transplant complications can include rejection of the transplanted skin, infection, an uneven skin surface, uneven skin color, scarring and changes in sensitivity.
In addition to using already-developed skin from the patient himself or herself, cadavers and pigs, a doctor might use cultured skin to perform a skin transplant. This skin might be grown from the patient's own cells or might be created from a skin substitute. Researchers also have worked on developing a skin substitute that can cover large areas of the body.