A central catheter is a long, thin tube that is inserted into a large vein. A central catheter is used to deliver medication, nutrition, IV fluids, and chemotherapy.
There are different types of central catheters, including:
- Peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line)—The catheter is threaded through a vein in the arm until it reaches the larger vein close to the heart.
- Non-tunneled central catheter—It is inserted in a large vein in the neck or leg; the tube end is outside of the skin.
- Tunneled central catheter—It is inserted in the neck vein and tunneled under the skin. The end of the catheter is sticking out from under the skin, usually below the collarbone.
- Port catheter—It is inserted in a shoulder or neck vein. The port is under the skin, and the catheter is tunneled into the central vein. The port is accessed by putting a needle through the skin directly into the port.
Veins in the Arm
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Reasons for Procedure
Central catheters are inserted when patients need:
- Long-term medication or fluids
- Nutrition, but cannot get it through the digestive system
- Repeated blood draws
- Blood transfusions
- IV medications when arm veins are difficult to access
A central catheter is commonly inserted by special types of doctors called interventional radiologists or vascular surgeons. Once the line is in, it can be used for weeks to months.
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
- Bloodstream infection—occurs when bacteria enters the bloodstream through or around the central line
- Collapsed lung
- Heart arrhythmias—changes in the way your heart beats
- Nerve injury
- An air bubble or part of the catheter blocks a blood vessel, causing chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and rapid heart beat
- Blood clots in the vein or on the catheter, potentially blocking the vein
- Blood clots in the lung
Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
At your appointment before the procedure:
- You may have a blood draw to check how well your blood clots.
- Your doctor may ask if you have any allergies.
- Arrange for a ride home after the procedure.
- Talk to your doctor about your medications. You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to one week before the procedure.
- If you think you may be pregnant, tell your doctor before the procedure.
You will be given a local anesthetic at the insertion area. Depending on where your central catheter is placed, you may receive a sedative through an IV.
Description of the Procedure
This procedure may be done while you are in the hospital as part of your treatment or in an outpatient setting. If you are already in the hospital for another reason, this procedure is unlikely to extend your stay.
Having a catheter inserted increases your risk of a bloodstream infection. The hospital staff will begin the procedure by following steps to reduce this risk.
The procedure may differ depending on the type of catheter and the insertion site. In general, the staff will:
- Give you an anesthetic.
- Make a small incision.
- Use an x-ray or ultrasound to guide a wire into the vein.
- Before inserting the catheter, cut it to the correct length. Flush the catheter with salt water.
- Insert the catheter using the guide wire. Then, remove the wire.
- Use sutures or tape to secure the catheter line. Place caps on the end of the catheter.
- Cover the insertion site with a bandage. Write the date of the insertion on or near the bandage.
If you have a port inserted, a small pocket for the port will be created under your skin. The incision will be closed over the pocket, usually with dissolving sutures.
Immediately After Procedure
You will be checked for bleeding, drainage, and bruising at the insertion site.
How Long Will It Take?
How Much Will It Hurt?
During the procedure, you will not feel any pain because of the anesthetic. There may be mild discomfort at the insertion site after the procedure.
Average Hospital Stay
This procedure is most commonly done in a hospital setting because it is needed for your treatment. The length of stay will depend on the reason you need the central catheter. If you are an outpatient receiving treatment through your central catheter, you may be sent home the same day as the procedure.
At the Hospital
After the procedure, the staff may provide the following care to help you recover:
- Do an x-ray to make sure your catheter is in the correct position.
- Continue to check the insertion site for bleeding.
- Give you medications, fluids, or nutrition through the catheter.
- Flush catheter ports to prevent blood clots.
- Take steps to reduce your risk of infection.
There are also steps that you can take to reduce your risk of infection:
- Ask the staff to take every precaution to prevent an infection.
- Tell the staff right away if the bandage needs to be changed or if the site is red or sore.
- Ask everyone entering your hospital room to wash their hands. Do not allow visitors to touch your catheter.
When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:
- Keep your insertion site clean, dry, and covered with a bandage. Follow your doctor’s instructions for changing the bandage.
- Before touching the catheter, wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer. Wear gloves when touching the area.
- Ask your doctor about when it is safe to shower, bathe, or soak in water. If allowed by your doctor, cover the bandage with plastic when showering.
- Do not swim or bathe while your central line is in.
- Avoid lifting or any kind of activity that may loosen the central line.
- Do not allow anyone to touch the catheter or the tube.
- Check the insertion site daily for signs of infection, such as redness, swelling and pain.
- Learn how to take care of your catheter.
- Flush the line with saline or heparin as directed.
- Take medication as directed.
Call Your Doctor
After arriving home, contact your doctor if any of the following occurs:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills, redness or swelling at the insertion site
- Pain at the insertion site
- Drainage or leakage from the catheter
- Trouble flushing or inserting fluids into the catheter
- Catheter loosens or falls out
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov
Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca
Updated July 25, 2013. Accessed August 8, 2013.
FAQs: Catheter-associated bloodstream infections. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
Accessed August 8, 2013.
Vascular access procedures. Radiological Society of North America Radiology Info website. Available at:
Updated August 5, 2013. Accessed August 8, 2013.
6/3/2011 DynaMed’s Systematic Literature Surveillance
Mills E, Eyawo O, et al. Smoking cessation reduces postoperative complications: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2011;124(2):144-154.e8.
Last Updated: 5/11/2013