PICC lines

A PICC line is a long, thin, hollow tube that a doctor or nurse puts into a vein above the bend of your elbow. It is used to give you chemotherapy and other medicines. It can stay in place until your treatment is over.

You’ll be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area before the line is put in.

Your doctor or nurse will gently thread the line along the vein in your arm until it’s in a large vein in your chest.  You’ll have an x-ray to check it’s in the correct position. 

The PICC line is held in place by a dressing which is changed every week. The cap at the end of the line is replaced weekly to reduce the risk of infection. The line is flushed regularly to prevent it becoming blocked. 

Contact your hospital doctor or nurse if you have any swelling, pain, leaking fluid around the PICC line, or if you don’t feel well. These may be symptoms of an infection or blood clot.

Once you no longer need the PICC line, it will be removed.

What are PICC lines (peripherally inserted central catheters)?

PICC lines (peripherally inserted central catheters) are used to give someone chemotherapy treatment or other medicines.
A PICC line is a long, thin, flexible tube known as a catheter. It’s put into one of the large veins of the arm, above the bend of the elbow. It’s then threaded into the vein until the tip sits in a large vein just above the heart.

The line is usually sealed with a special cap or bung. This can be attached to a drip or syringe containing your medication. There may be a clamp to keep the line closed when it’s not being used.

Sometimes, it divides into 2 or 3 lines. This allows you to have different treatments at the same time.

A PICC line
A PICC line

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Having your PICC line put in

Having your PICC line put in

This is a short animation about having a PICC line (Peripherally inserted central catheter) put in.

About our cancer information videos

Having your PICC line put in

This is a short animation about having a PICC line (Peripherally inserted central catheter) put in.

About our cancer information videos

What PICC lines are used for

A PICC can be used to give you treatments such as chemotherapy, blood transfusions, antibiotics, intravenous (IV) fluids and liquid food if you’re not able to eat. It can also be used to take samples of your blood for testing.

This means you won't need to have needles put in every time you have treatment.

You can go home with the PICC line in and it can be left in for weeks or months.

A PICC may be helpful if doctors and nurses find it difficult to get needles into your veins. It’s also helpful if you don't like needles.

How the PICC line is put in

Your PICC line will be put in by a specialist nurse or doctor in an outpatient department or on a ward. This will be done using a local anaesthetic.

First, the skin in the area is cleaned with antiseptic solution. Then this area is numbed with an anaesthetic cream or injection.

When the skin is completely numb, a needle will be put into the vein. The PICC line is then threaded through the needle, into a large vein that leads to your heart. The needle is removed at the same time. This shouldn't take long and is usually painless. The PICC line will be held in place by a transparent dressing.

You will have a chest x-ray to check that the end of the tube is in the right place.

A close up of a PICC line
A close up of a PICC line

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Possible problems when putting in the PICC line

If your veins are small, it may be difficult to find a suitable one to put the PICC line into. Your doctor or nurse may use an ultrasound scan to help them find the best vein to use. The ultrasound uses sound waves to produce a picture of the veins in your arm. A small hand-held device is rubbed gently over your arm. This is painless.

It can sometimes be difficult to thread the PICC line up the vein towards the heart. If this happens, it's usually possible to try again using a different vein.

Sometimes, the PICC line seems to go in easily but the x-ray shows it isn't in the right place. If this happens, your nurse or doctor may be able to move it. If this doesn’t work, it will be taken out and replaced.

Caring for your PICC line

When the PICC line isn't being used, there is a slight risk of it becoming 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 the line will need to be changed each week to reduce the risk of infection. The dressing will also need to be changed every week.

It's difficult to do this with one hand, so the nurses at the hospital may do it for you or arrange for a district nurse to visit you at home. They can also teach a relative, partner or friend how to do this.

When you’re at home, it's safe for you to have a shower or bath with your PICC line in. Your nurse can give you waterproof covers to stop the line getting wet.

Possible problems with PICC lines


It’s possible for an infection to develop inside the line or in the area where it goes into the vein.

Contact your hospital doctor or nurse if you have:

  • redness, swelling or pain in the area
  • discoloured fluid coming from the area
  • a high temperature (fever).

If you get an infection, you will be given antibiotics. If the infection doesn’t get better, the line may be removed.

Blood clots

It’s possible for a blood clot (thrombosis) to form in your vein at the tip of the line. You may be given medication to help prevent this. Contact your hospital doctor or nurse if you notice any swelling, redness or tenderness in the arm, chest area, or up into the neck (on the same side as the PICC line).

If a clot does form, you will be given some medication to dissolve it. Your line may have to be removed.

Air in the PICC line

It’s important not to get any air into your PICC line. Not all PICC lines have clamps. Some lines have caps at the end that stop air from getting into the line. If your PICC line has a clamp, it should always be closed when the line isn't being used. The line must not be left unclamped when the caps aren't in place.

The PICC line may come out

To stop the line coming out by accident, it should always be taped or covered with a dressing. If the dressing holding the PICC line in place comes loose, contact your district or hospital nurse immediately. Then it can be replaced as soon as possible.

Break or cut in the PICC line

It is important that the PICC line is not cut or split. Don’t use scissors near the PICC line. It’s not very common to get a cut or split in the line. If this happens, contact your hospital immediately. The line may need to be removed if it can't be repaired.

How the PICC line is removed

When you don’t need a PICC line anymore, it will be taken out. A nurse will usually do this for you in an outpatient department. It will be gently pulled out. This is a painless procedure and only takes a few minutes.

Back to Being treated with chemotherapy

Central lines

A central line is a long, thin hollow tube. It is inserted into a vein in your chest to give chemotherapy and other drugs.

Implantable ports

An implantable port is a tube with a rubber disc at the end. It is inserted into a vein to give chemotherapy or other medicines.

Lumbar punctures

A lumbar puncture involves inserting a hollow needle between two of the spinal bones. This may be used to give chemotherapy.