PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter)
This information is about a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line). A PICC line is a long, thin and flexible tube (catheter) that we put into a vein in your upper arm. We can then:
- give you antibiotics, other medicines, fluids or liquid food (nutrition) directly into the vein (intravenously)
- take blood samples for testing
The aim of this information is to help answer some of your questions about having a PICC line. It explains:
- the benefits of having a PICC line
- the risks of having a PICC line
- what you can expect when you come to hospital
- what happens after the procedure
- how to care for your PICC line
If you have any more questions or concerns, please contact the interventional radiology (IR) department. Sometimes, a district nurse helps you to look after your PICC line when you are at home.
About a PICC line
A PICC line is a long, thin and flexible tube (catheter). We put this tube into one of the veins in your arm.
Usually, the line is 38 to 52cm long. The length of the line depends on:
- how tall you are
- where we put in the tube
The tip of the PICC line sits in a big vein just above your heart. The other end of the PICC line comes out of your arm by about 5cm. Outside your body, the PICC line divides into 1 or 2 smaller tubes called lumens. Each tube is usually sealed with a special cap or bung.
Not everyone is suitable to have a PICC line. A nurse specialist or doctor assesses you before putting in the line.
Benefits of having a PICC line
We can use a PICC line to:
- give you medicines, such as antibiotics, directly into a vein (intravenously)
- deliver chemotherapy or other medicines that can irritate tissues to large veins in the chest where they do less harm (rather than small veins in the arm)
- give you fluids or liquid food (nutrition) through a vein
- give you blood and blood products, such as platelets (tiny blood cells that help your body make clots to stop bleeding)
- take blood samples for testing, which reduces the needle pricks that you need in your arm
A PICC line is especially helpful if:
- you have small veins
- you are anxious about needles
- you need to start intensive treatment immediately
- a different type of line is not suitable because you take blood-thinning medicines or cannot lie flat
A district nurse can use a PICC line to give you treatment at home.
If a PICC line is cared for properly, it can stay in place for 6 to 8 months.
Risks of having a PICC line
Like other types of central lines (tubes put into veins), a PICC line involves a small risk of complications. The nurse specialist or doctor explains the risks before you sign a consent form agreeing to have the procedure.
The most common risks are listed in this section.
There is a small risk of getting an infection. This can happen at any time when the PICC line is in place.
If you get an infection, we can often treat it with antibiotics. Sometimes, we need to remove the PICC line to prevent the infection from getting worse.
It is possible to get a blood clot around the PICC line. You may then have painful and swollen arms. It is important to tell the nurse looking after you if you get these symptoms. We need to treat the blood clot immediately.
In some cases, the tip of the PICC line might not be in the correct position. We then do a chest X-ray to check the position. The nurse specialist or doctor might have to change the position of the line.
Sometimes, there is a small amount of blood around the area where we put in the PICC line. We might put gentle pressure on this area after the procedure to prevent bleeding, especially if you have blood clotting problems.
You have the procedure under a local anaesthetic. This is when we inject a medicine to make part of your body numb. You stay awake during the procedure but do not feel pain.
During the procedure, you are exposed to X-rays. They are a type of radiation called ionising radiation. This may cause cancer many years or decades after you are exposed to it.
You might have some skin redness after the procedure that feels like sunburn. We do not expect this to be permanent. The redness might be harder to notice on brown and black skin.
Interventional radiology (IR) is when we use medical imaging guidance to do minimally invasive procedures. The amount (dose) of radiation from these procedures is generally low. More complex procedures might involve a medium (moderate) dose of radiation.
The IR doctor and radiographer (health professional who specialises in medical imaging) make sure that:
- your radiation dose is kept as low as possible
- the benefits of having X-rays during your procedure are greater than the radiation risks
Radiation and pregnancy
Radiation can be harmful for an unborn baby. If you are or think that you might be pregnant, it is important to tell a member of your medical team before the procedure. We cannot do any procedure that involves radiation if you are pregnant.
If you can become pregnant from sex, you need to use protection (contraception) from the first day of your period until your appointment. This means that you will not be pregnant when you have the procedure.
If the first day of your period has already passed, please contact the interventional radiology (IR) department. We can then give you another appointment within the first 10 days of your period.
We ask you to sign a pregnancy declaration form before the procedure.
Giving your permission (consent)
We want to involve you in decisions about your care and treatment. If you decide to have a PICC line, we will ask you to sign a consent form. This says that you agree to have the treatment and understand what it involves.
If you would like more information about our consent process, please speak to a member of staff caring for you.