Injections and drips

You can have cancer drugs as an injection or drip through a vein, through a central line, PICC line or Portacath. Sometimes you might have it as an injection into a muscle or under the skin.

Injection or a drip into your vein

Drugs given by injection usually work very quickly.

An injection into a vein is called an intravenous injection (IV). You have the injection through a small tube (cannula) put into a vein in one of your arms. This can stay in for a few days if needed.

Diagram showing a cannula

Your nurse or doctor attaches a syringe to the cannula to inject the drug. The cannula has a rubber bung on it, and they might inject the drug through the rubber bung. 

Some cancer drugs are diluted in a bag of fluid, and you have them as a drip.

Your nurse or doctor attaches the drip bag to the cannula, and the drug goes into your vein over 20 minutes or a few hours. Some drugs are given in this way over a few days, and a small electronic pump keeps the dose rate constant.

Injection into your muscle

Some drugs are injected into a muscle (intramuscular injections), usually in your buttocks, upper thigh or upper arm.

You might have stinging or a dull ache for a short time after this type of injection, but they don't usually hurt much.

Injection under your skin

You usually have injections under the skin (subcutaneous injection) into the stomach, thigh or top of your arm.

You might have stinging or a dull ache for a short time after this type of injection, but they don't usually hurt much. The skin in the area may go red and itchy for a while.

The video below shows you how to inject just under your skin (subcutaneously). 

Central lines (skin tunnelled catheters)

Central lines usually go into your body in the centre of your chest. Then they run under your skin to a large vein by your collarbone. They are also called skin tunnelled catheters.

The only bit you can see is the length of line that hangs out of the small entry hole in the skin on your chest. This is a picture of a central line in place.

Diagram showing a central line

The central line can stay in your vein for many months. So you don't need to have needles into your hand or arm each time you have your cancer drug treatment.

You have a general or local anaesthetic before the central line is put in. When it's in, the doctor stitches it in place. Or they might put a dressing over it so it doesn't come out. 

Your doctor and nurse can take blood from the line for tests. They can also use the line to give you fluids or other treatments such as antibiotics, if you need them.

PICC lines

PICC stands for Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter. You have it into a vein in your arm. It can be put in during an outpatient appointment under local anaesthetic.

The line runs up the vein inside your arm and ends in a large vein in your chest.

PICC lines can be left in for several months and are used similarly to central lines.

Diagram showing a PICC line

Portacaths (implanted ports)

A Portacath is a particular type of central line. It has a small chamber or reservoir that sits under your skin. You can feel the chamber but cannot usually see it unless you are very thin. It is also called an implanted port.

When you need treatment, your nurse puts a needle into the chamber and gives you injections or attaches a drip. The needle stays in place for as long as the treatment is given. Then your nurse removes the needle until your next treatment.

The main advantage of a Portacath is that you can't see it on the outside of your body. You don't have to have a tube coming out of your chest as you do with a central line.

But some people prefer a central line because they don't like having a needle put through the skin each time they need treatment. 

If you prefer, you can have the area over the Portacath numbed with a local anaesthetic cream before the nurse puts the needle in.

Diagram showing a portacath
Diagram showing an implantable port under the skin

Syringe drivers and syringe pumps

A syringe driver or pump can be: 

  • battery operated
  • plugged into a normal electric wall socket

Some chemotherapy drugs are given using a syringe pump. You can also have a syringe pump or driver if you need a constant dose of a particular drug but find swallowing difficult.

People who are very ill, and might be dying, often have syringe drivers. Drugs given this way can give very good pain and sickness control. It is a very efficient way of having regular medicines at home.

A pharmacist or nurse puts the drug into a syringe. The driver or pump gives the drug from the syringe through a soft plastic tube to a needle that goes under your skin or directly into your vein. Your nurse fixes the needle in place with a see through plastic dressing stuck over the top.

Sometimes you have more than one drug in the syringe. Your nurse sets the pump so that you get exactly the dose you need each hour.

Your nurse might change the syringe every day or so. Some drugs can't be used in syringe drivers because they irritate the skin or don't completely dissolve in water.

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