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What is a Vascular Catheter?

By Eric Stolze
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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A vascular catheter, or venous catheter, is a thin flexible plastic tube that is inserted into a patient’s vein and remains there for repeated access to the vein. The catheter allows easy access to a patient’s bloodstream for medical uses, such as periodic blood draws and intravenous (IV) drug administration. While a simple tube connected to a needle may be sufficient for short-term use, patients with long-term vascular access requirements may benefit from a vascular catheter that could be implanted during a vascular access surgical procedure.

Vascular access with a central catheter requires a flexible long tube that is inserted into a large vein in the neck, arm, or upper chest area beneath the collarbone. The tube is typically moved through the vascular system until it reaches a large vein in the middle of the chest. Central catheters can generally be used to monitor heart function, as well as deliver medications or nutrients into the bloodstream.

Physicians use vascular access catheters for a variety of reasons, including the administration of anti-cancer drugs or chemotherapy drugs to cancer patients. Patients with a severe bacterial infection may receive intravenous antibiotics through a venous catheter. People with kidney disease typically receive periodic hemodialysis treatments to remove waste from the blood, which may be provided through this catheter. Some patients receive blood transfusions through a venous catheter to replace lost blood or to deliver healthy blood cells into the bloodstream.

For many patients, a vascular catheter has several benefits, including repeated access to a patient’s vascular system without painful needle pricks and insertions each time that vascular access is needed. Central catheters may be less likely to cause a leak at the point where a needle enters the skin than a regular IV. Patients with a central catheter usually have minimal scarring from needle entry compared to patients who endure a separate needle stick each time the vascular system needs to be accessed.

Bruising or bleeding at a catheter insertion site, catheter infection, and blood vessel damage are possible risks of catheter use. A catheter may become dislodged if it is not closely monitored. Air in a catheter may cause chest pain. In rare cases, catheters have caused heartbeat irregularities as well.

A nurse usually gives instructions to a patient about maintaining a clean vascular catheter that is ready for continued use. Patients typically need to restrict physical activity in an area where the catheter enters the body, such as an arm. An individual with a vascular catheter may need to sleep in a different position than he or she is accustomed to in order to avoid damaging the catheter.

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