Frequently Asked Questions about Catheters

A central venous catheter, also known as a central line, is a tube that doctors place in a large vein in the neck, chest, groin, or arm to give fluids, blood, or medications or to do medical tests quickly. These long, flexible catheters empty out in or near the heart, allowing the catheter to give the needed treatment within seconds. You may be familiar with standard intravenous lines (IVs). Central lines are much different from standard IVs that are used to give medicine into a vein near the skin’s surface, usually for short periods of time. A central venous catheter can remain for weeks or months, and some patients receive treatment through the line several times a day. Central venous catheters are important in treating many conditions, particularly in intensive care units (ICUs).

Central venous catheters may be used for the following reason:

  • To give medicines for treatment of pain, infection, or other medical issues (e.g., cancer or heart problems)
  • To provide fluids for nutrition.
  • To help conduct certain medical tests.

There are several types of central venous catheters. Healthcare providers use the type that is best for each patient’s case.

  • A peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line is placed into a vein in the arm.
  • A tunneled catheter is surgically placed into a vein in the chest or neck and then passed under the skin. One end of the catheter comes out through the skin so medicines can be given right into the catheter.
  • An implanted port is similar to a tunneled catheter, but an implanted port is placed entirely under the skin. Medicines are given by a needle placed through the skin into the catheter. An implanted port is not as visible as a tunneled catheter, does not require as much daily care, and does not get in the way of a patient’s regular activities as much as a PICC line or a tunneled catheter might.

Central venous catheters can be found in a number of settings: hospitals (Intensive Care Units, Special Care Units, and other hospital settings); long-term care facilities (LTCFs); and outpatient facilities such as ambulatory surgical clinics and dialysis centers. Additionally, sometimes a patient can have a central venous catheter while at home after a hospital stay or during long-term treatment for conditions like cancer.

Bloodstream Infections in ICU Patiens with Central Lines. CDC Vital Signs™: www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns