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Central Venous Catheters - Topic Overview

What is a central venous catheter?

A central venous catheter, also called a central line, is a long, thin, flexible tube used to give medicines, fluids, nutrients, or blood products over a long period of time, usually several weeks or more. A catheter is often inserted in the arm or chest through the skin into a large vein. The catheter is threaded through this vein until it reaches a large vein near the heart.

A catheter may be inserted into the neck if it will be used only during a hospital stay.

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What is a central venous catheter used for?

Central venous catheters are used to:

  • Give long-term medicine treatment for pain, infection, or cancer, or to supply nutrition. A central venous catheter can be left in place far longer than an intravenous catheter (IV), which gives medicines into a vein near the skin surface.
  • Give medicines that affect the heart, especially if a quick response to the medicine is wanted.
  • Give large amounts of blood or fluid quickly.
  • Take frequent blood samples without having to "stick" someone with a needle.
  • Receive kidney dialysis if you have kidney failure.

A central venous catheter can be left in place far longer than an intravenous catheter (IV), which gives medicines into a vein near the skin surface. Also, a central venous catheter allows a person to receive IV medicines at home.

What types of central venous catheters are there?

There are several types of central venous catheters.

PICC line. A peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC line (say "pick"), is a central venous catheter inserted into a vein in the arm rather than a vein in the neck or chest.

Tunneled catheter. This type of catheter is surgically inserted into a vein in the neck or chest and passed under the skin. One end of the catheter remains outside the skin. Medicines can be given through an opening in this end of the catheter. Passing the catheter under the skin helps keep it in place better, lets you move around easier, and makes it less visible.

Implanted port. This type is similar to a tunneled catheter but is left entirely under the skin. Medicines are injected through the skin into the catheter. Some implanted ports contain a small reservoir that can be refilled in the same way. After being filled, the reservoir slowly releases the medicine into the bloodstream. An implanted port is less obvious than a tunneled catheter and requires very little daily care. It has less impact on a person's activities than a PICC line or a tunneled catheter.

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