A peripherally-inserted central catheter, or PICC line, is a long, soft, and flexible tube inserted into a vein in the upper arm. Doctors and nurses use it to administer intravenous (IV) therapy.

A healthcare professional inserts the PICC line into a person’s arm and follows the vein until it reaches the superior vena cava, a large vein above the right side of the heart.

A doctor can use the opening of the PICC on the outside of the arm to draw blood or administer fluids and medications without the need for continual needle pricks.

This article outlines the benefits and risks of the PICC insertion procedure and compares it with similar methods. It will also explain what a person can expect before, during, and after the procedure.

a person is checking the flow rate of an IV dripShare on Pinterest
JohnnyGreig/Getty Images

PICCs allow for long-term access to inject fluids or draw blood.

Fewer needles

PICCs can stay in place for weeks or even months at a time, meaning a person has to endure fewer needle pricks.

A doctor may also recommend inserting a PICC if an individual’s veins are not easily accessible.

Another benefit of PICCs is that they can feature more than one lumen. A lumen comprises the tubing and caps that feed from various sources. Therefore, a patient can receive more than one medication at the same time. For example, they could receive chemo and fluids simultaneously.

Long- or short-term treatment

A person could get a PICC if they are receiving chemotherapy. In these cases, they can go home and leave the PICC in place until they have their final treatment.

Doctors can use a PICC to administer:

PICC lines share many similarities with other IV lines, such as PIVs, CVCs, and ports.

PICC vs. PIV

A peripheral IV line (PIV) is a short-term use device that doctors often insert into the forearm for up to 4 days.

Although they can provide medications and fluids or allow for the drawing of blood, PIVs cannot accommodate all forms of chemotherapy.

Therefore, a person with cancer may need a PICC to receive their required medical intervention.

Additionally, PICC lines can remain inserted for longer periods of time, which may be useful for people receiving long-term treatment.

PICC vs. CVC

A PICC is a form of central venous catheter (CVC).

While doctors insert PICCs through the arm, they insert other types of CVCs, such as tunneled CVCs, directly into the chest or neck.

Both types can be useful in administering chemotherapy medications or other fluids.

PICC vs. ports

A port is a surgically-implanted catheter that doctors place in the chest.

These ports can stay in place for up to several months.

A 2017 study suggested that ports are safer than PICCs and other types of CVCs. Researchers found that they led to fewer complications among participants.

Ports may also improve a person’s overall quality of life as they involve even fewer needles than PICCs.

Learn more about the pros and cons of different IV lines here.

Although most doctors consider PICCs safe and low risk, they carry some potential side effects.

Some possible complications include:

A person should let a healthcare professional know if something happens to their PICC, for example, if they believe their PICC line has moved out of place. People should also talk with a doctor or nurse if they experience the following:

Prior to the procedure, a person should ask their doctor any questions they may have.

People who take regular medications can also consult with their doctor about these and whether they should continue with them before the procedure.

Additionally, a person will likely need to stop taking any blood thinners, such as aspirin, prior to the procedure. However, individuals should always consult their doctor before stopping any medication.

A healthcare professional may tell a person to remove any other devices they currently have on their skin, such as an insulin pump or continuous glucose monitor.

If an individual is sick, they should also tell their doctor. They may need to have their procedure delayed until they are feeling better.

Doctors generally consider placing a PICC in the arm as an outpatient procedure, although it may require a stay in the hospital.

A doctor or nurse will insert the PICC. Before the insertion, they will administer a numbing agent into the arm to decrease discomfort.

To connect the PICC, a healthcare professional will make a small insertion into the arm and then insert the tubing through a vein in the arm. They will use imaging devices to help them guide the tubing until it reaches just outside of the heart.

Once the tube arrives at the correct location, a healthcare professional will secure it in place and cover the opening with a device to help keep it clean.

If the doctors have chosen to leave the PICC line in, a person may need to learn to care for it at home.

At home

A person can take the following steps to care for the PICC at home:

  • inspecting the exit site every day for adverse events, such as leaks
  • asking about the best ways to secure the catheter
  • avoiding placing tape over the site
  • not wearing tight clothing or using blood pressure cuffs or needles in the arm with the PICC
  • following all guidelines for cleaning and changing dressings

A person should also check the site every day for signs of infection, such as flushed skin, swelling, or bleeding.

Showering

While showering, a person can cover their PICC exit with a waterproof cover, which they can usually purchase online.

People should avoid submerging their dressings in bodies of water, such as a bathtub or pool.

Healthcare professionals also recommend using antiseptic cleansers to help keep the site clean.

A person can also shower with these cleansers and use them as they would use soap to wash their body, excluding the face and genital areas.

Strenuous activity

A person should talk to their doctor about what types of exercise and activities are safe while a PICC is in place.

They should also avoid any contact sports or activities where they may cause it to become loose or come out.

Dressing changes

People should talk to their doctor or nurse about the frequency of their dressing changes.

Typically, a nurse will change dressings and flush the line at least once a week.

According to the National Cancer Institute, a PICC line can stay in place for several weeks or months.

This means they can work well for people who need long-term treatment, such as chemotherapy.

If a doctor or nurse inserted the PICC line during a hospital stay, they may remove it before the person goes home if it is no longer needed.

If an individual leaves the hospital with the PICC line in place, they will need to schedule an appointment with their doctor to remove it.

A PICC line is a flexible tube that healthcare professionals insert into a vein in the upper arm that reaches just outside the heart.

These devices can help doctors or nurses draw blood or administer medications or other fluids.

A PICC is generally safe — infection or other complications from their use are very rare.

However, a person should contact their doctor if they experience any issues associated with their PICC, including if they believe they have dislodged it or pulled it out.

Once a person no longer requires their PICC line, they should contact their doctor about removing it.