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What Is an Implantable Port?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 09, 2021

Implantable ports are devices that a doctor inserts under your skin and into a vein. They usually go in about an inch below your collarbone on your upper right chest. You might hear them called port-a-caths. Sometimes the port goes into a vein in your arm.

Doctors use them to take blood or to get drugs or fluids into your bloodstream more easily than with a standard intravenous needle, or IV. The port is a good option if you need treatments regularly or over a long period of time.

Implantable ports are about the size of a quarter. They have a round, oval, or triangle shape. You can see and feel a small raised area where the port sits just under your skin.

What’s in an Implantable Port?

Implantable ports have two parts:

  • A port that lies just beneath the skin’s surface. Fluid flows through it to get into your body. The raised, center part of the port is called the septum. It’s sealed around the edges with rubber. You may also hear it called the access point.
  • The catheter or “cath.” This is a long, flexible plastic tube that goes from the port into one of the larger veins in your chest.

Once it’s implanted, the device can stay in your chest for years if it has to. Your doctor will remove it once your chemotherapy is done and you no longer need it.

Why Do You Need an Implantable Port?

If you’re getting chemotherapy for cancer, or other medications, it’s easier for the doctor to give you medication or IV fluids through a port. Otherwise, you’d need regular shots or needle sticks in your veins. The port is less painful and lowers your risk of infection, too.

Your doctor can also use the port to take blood samples for tests or to give you blood (they’ll call this a transfusion). The port is also a great way to give IV antibiotics, fluids, or nutrients.

Some medications could burst or burn the smaller veins in your arm. Because the port empties into a large vein, it helps avoid these problems. It also makes it easier if you need to get medications around the clock over a few days.

What Does an Implantable Port Do?

Doctors inject chemotherapy drugs or IV fluids into the septum of your port. From there, they go through the catheter to a vein and directly into your bloodstream. The doctor can also take blood samples through the septum. They’ll call this accessing the port.

How Is Your Port Implanted?

You’ll get the port at the hospital in an operating room or the radiology department. They’ll give you a local anesthetic so you won’t feel any pain. You’ll also get some medication to help you relax.

The doctor will make two tiny cuts where the port will go. They’ll create a little pocket under your skin that’s about 2 inches wide. They’ll make a smaller cut above this for the catheter tube that goes into your vein.

Once the doctor implants the port, they’ll put the catheter tube into your vein and stitch up the cuts. You’ll get a chest X-ray to make sure the port is in the right spot. The whole thing takes about an hour.

The area may feel bruised or sore for a few days. Once you’re at home, watch for signs of infection around the site, like redness, swelling, heat, or smelly gunk coming out of it. If you notice these symptoms, call your doctor.

Don’t fasten your car’s seatbelt over the cut until it heals. You can place a pillow between the seatbelt and your port, or move the seatbelt to a different spot. Don’t lift any objects heavier than 10 pounds for about 5 days after you get the port.

About a week to 10 days after the process, your doctor or nurse will remove any stitches. The wound should be healed by then.

How’s an Implantable Port Used?

The port is ready to use shortly after it’s implanted. About a half-hour before a treatment, your doctor or nurse will rub an anesthetic on the skin over your port. This numbs the skin so you don’t feel anything.

They’ll clean and disinfect the area. Then they’ll use a special needle called a Huber needle to push through your skin and into the port. You shouldn’t feel any pain.

They may also cover the area with a bandage so it stays clean during the treatment. When your therapy or test is done, they’ll remove the needle.

The skin around your port will start to thicken and become less sensitive over time.

Only doctors and nurses should give you treatments through an implantable port, because they’re trained to use them.

How Do You Live With a Port?

After your port is in and the area heals, you can go back to normal daily activities like cleaning the house, exercise, or work. You can swim if the port doesn’t have a needle inserted into it. But avoid playing any contact sports.

You can shower or bathe as you normally would if there’s no needle in your port.

You’ll need to flush out the port after each treatment and once every 4 weeks. This keeps any blood or medications from clogging up the tube. A nurse can do this or teach you to do it at home on your own. You’ll put a small amount of fluid into the port’s access point.

Does Having an Implantable Port Bring Any Risks?

You could get an infection around your port or at the tip of your catheter where it hits the bloodstream. If you notice signs like redness, swelling, heat, pain in the area, a high fever, or dizziness, call your doctor right away.

You could also get a blood clot in the vein where your catheter is put in. If the area around the port is swollen or tender, or if your arm on that side of your body is red, call your doctor right away.

If you don’t flush your port and it gets totally blocked, it won’t be usable. The doctor will have to remove it.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Macmillan Cancer Support: “Implantable Ports.”

Nurse.org: “Port-a-Cath 101: How to Access the Port.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “About Your Implanted Port.”

University Health Network/Toronto General Hospital: “What to Expect When Getting an Implanted Port.”

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