What is a central line?
A central line is a tube that goes into the chest and directly into one of the major blood vessels. The end of a central line hangs out of the chest and is usually sealed off with a cap.
When it is time for you to have your cancer treatment, the nurse or doctor takes off the cap and connects the line to a syringe or drip. When all the drugs have been passed through the line it is flushed through with sterile saline and an anti clotting drug and sealed off again.
Once you no longer need the line, the doctor or nurse will take it out. The site will soon heal, leaving a small scar. You will also have a small scar by your collar bone. This is from a cut (incision) the doctor made when the line was put in. It was through this incision that the doctor positioned the line in the vein.
The advantage of having a central line is that you don't have to have injections or drips put in each time you have treatment. You can have all your treatment straight into your bloodstream without you feeling it.
One disadvantage is that you have to have a small operation to put the line in. And some people don't like the idea of having the tube hanging from their chest.
The video below shows how a tunnelled central line is put in. Click on the arrow to watch it.
Sometimes problems occur with central lines
- The line may get blocked
- You may get an infection
The line is flushed regularly with heparin (an anti clotting drug) or sterile salt water (saline) to prevent clotting. The nurses on the ward will teach you how to do this. Your district nurse can help you at home at first. Your doctor may also prescribe treatment with a low dose of the drug warfarin. Warfarin is a commonly used drug. It helps to prevent blood clots which could block your line.
It is important to watch out for signs of infection in the area where the line goes into your body, such as
- Discoloured discharge
- A high temperature
If you notice any of these signs, or are concerned about your line, you should phone the hospital and speak to your chemotherapy nurse or doctor straight away. If you do develop an infection it is very important that you have treatment with antibiotics. Otherwise, the line may have to be removed and a new one put in. You could also become unwell.
You can go home with a central line in place. There are very few restrictions to your everyday life. It is okay to have a bath or shower. Waterproof covers are available for PICC lines. These covers are even good enough for swimming. But you need to check with your doctor first if you are having chemotherapy because there may be an infection risk from using a public pool.
Before you go home make sure you are confident about looking after your line. Ask the staff on the ward if you are not sure about anything. They can arrange for district nurses to visit you at home to help with the line until you feel confident about looking after it.
If you have problems at home contact the medical staff on the ward or chemotherapy unit for advice.
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