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Learning About a Central Venous Catheter for Children

Areas on upper arms and upper chest where catheter may be put in

What is a central venous catheter?

A central venous catheter (CVC) is a thin, flexible tube used to give medicines, fluids, nutrients, or blood products over a long period of time. It's also called a central line. The catheter makes giving these things more comfortable because they are put directly into the catheter. That means your child is not poked with a needle every time. The catheter may be used to draw blood for tests only if another vein, such as in the hand or arm, can't be used.

The CVC is inserted in your child's chest, neck, groin, or arm. It's put through the skin and into a large vein near the heart. In most cases, the other end of the catheter sticks out of the skin. The end of the CVC has caps on it. The health care provider gives medicine or removes blood through the caps.

A baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) often has a CVC placed through the belly button. The NICU is the part of the hospital where premature or sick newborns are cared for.

Some of the common CVCs that are used outside the hospital or for longer periods of time include:

  • A peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC line (say "pick"). It often goes into a vein in your child's arm.
  • A tunnelled catheter. It is surgically inserted into a vein in the neck or chest.
  • An implanted port. This is similar to a tunnelled catheter but is left entirely under the skin. Medicines are injected through a "port" placed under the skin.

What happens when your child gets a CVC?

In the hospital, a nursing team will take care of your child and the CVC.

Insertion and care of the CVC

Your child's nursing team will:

  • Check the catheter site and dressing regularly. How often this is done depends on the situation.
  • Wash their hands before and after handling the catheter.
  • Clean or replace the catheter parts when needed.

Changing the dressing

The team will:

  • Use clean and proper materials for the dressing, which covers the catheter site.
  • Clean the catheter site and area whenever they change the dressing.
  • Replace the dressing when it is damp, loose, or dirty. It will be changed at least once a week.

Home care

If your child goes home with a CVC, the nursing team will give you detailed instructions on how to care for it and what to do if any problems occur. In general:

  • Always wash your hands before you touch your child's CVC. Make sure anyone who touches the catheter also washes their hands.
  • Try to keep the skin at the catheter site dry. This can help prevent infection. When your child showers or bathes, cover the site with waterproof material, such as plastic wrap. Be sure you cover both the skin site and the CVC cap(s).
  • Fasten or tape the central line to your child's body to prevent it from pulling or dangling. Avoid bending or crimping the CVC. And have your child wear clothing that doesn't rub or pull on the CVC.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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