A central line can be used to give you treatments such as chemotherapy, blood transfusions, antibiotics and intravenous (IV) fluids. It can also be used to take samples of your blood for testing.
This means that you won't need to have needles put into veins in your arms every time you have treatment. Central lines can also be used to pass liquid food into the vein if your digestive system is not able to cope with food for any reason.
You can go home with the central line in place, and it can be left in for weeks or months.
A central line may be helpful if doctors and nurses find it difficult to get needles into your veins, or if the walls of your veins have been hardened by previous chemotherapy treatment. A central line is also helpful if you don't like needles.
Your central line will be put in at the hospital by a specially trained nurse or a doctor. Although a central line is usually put in under a local anaesthetic, a general anaesthetic is sometimes used.
Your neck will be checked for a suitable vein using a small ultrasound machine. The area where the line is to be inserted is then cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
A local anaesthetic is used to numb the area. You shouldn't feel any pain when the tube is being put in, but you may feel a bit sore for a few days afterwards.
A small cut is made in the skin near your collarbone (the insertion site), and the tip of the line is gently threaded into a large vein, towards the heart. The other end of the line is then tunnelled under the skin to reach the exit site. The exit site is the place where the tube comes out of your body.
You will have a chest x-ray to make sure the line is put in the right place.
The position of the exit site will vary. You can ask the person who is going to put in the central line to show you where on your chest the exit site is likely to be.
When the line has been put in you will have dressings covering the insertion and exit sites. For a few days you may have some pain or discomfort where it has been tunnelled under the skin. A mild painkiller such as paracetamol will help ease this.
What stops the central line from falling out?
Back to top
There is a small cuff around the central line that can be felt under the skin just above the exit site. The tissue under the skin grows around this cuff over a period of about three weeks and holds the line safely in place.
Until this has happened you will have a stitch holding the line in place. This stitch usually stays in place for about three weeks
Care of your central line
Back to top
When the central line isn't being used there is a small risk that it may become blocked. To stop this from happening, a small amount of fluid is ‘flushed’ into the line using a syringe. This is usually done once a week. The caps or bungs at the end of each lumen should also be changed every week.
The exit site will also need to be cleaned once a week to reduce the risk of infection. If you have a dressing on the site it will need to be changed once a week. To help reduce the risk of infection, an antibiotic patch may be put around the exit site.
The nurses at the hospital will teach you (if you feel able to), or a relative or friend, how to flush the line and change the dressings. Otherwise a district nurse can do it for you at home.
When you’re at home, it’s safe for you to have a shower or bath with your central line in place. Your nurse can give you waterproof covers to stop the line getting wet.