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What is an Intravenous Drip?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A continuous intravenous (IV) drip is a medical procedure in which a liquid substance is directly dripped into a vein over time through a tube and needle inserted into the skin. A sealed device called a drip chamber controls the process so the substance slowly flows into the vein, without any chance of air entering the bloodstream. Air introduced into the bloodstream can create serious health problems and can even be fatal.

An intravenous drip, also called an IV drip, is commonly associated with long-term treatments, but it is also used as a short-term method to rehydrate a patient or give them medicine or nutrients to revitalize them. It's a very efficient process to quickly supply the entire body with prescribed medicine. IV drips are routinely used in hospitals as well as in clinics and doctor’s offices that prepare patients for admittance to hospitals.

There are two common types of lines used for intravenous drips. A peripheral intravenous drip line is used to access peripheral veins, or those located anywhere except the abdomen or chest. The other is used in the right atrium of the heart or in areas adjacent to the heart. It is referred to as a central intravenous drip line.

A peripheral IV line is normally inserted into a vein on the arm or hand. Leg and foot veins are rarely used, as their locations make access impractical. The veins in the scalp are commonly used for infants requiring an IV. To insert a peripheral IV line, the needle first is inserted into a vein, covered by a plastic mount and enclosed in a hollow metal cylinder. The needle is properly placed inside the vein and secured by the exterior plastic mount. The metal guide is then withdrawn and discarded.

A central IV line, or catheter, is inserted directly into the right atrium of the heart or into one of the two adjacent chest cavities. This type of IV is preferred for substances that may be irritating to peripheral veins because of their chemical content or level of concentration. Unlike peripheral IVs, a central IV is capable of simultaneously transporting several different substances into the body at one time. This is accomplished by filling multiple sections of the inserted catheter with different medicines or supplements.

With either method, complications may arise if the needles are not properly and securely inserted or if a vein leaks blood due to weakness or a puncture. Veins often collapse or become inaccessible if repeated IV procedures are performed. In these cases, veins in other parts of the body are used for IV access.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1005282 — On Jul 27, 2021

When they say sharp scratch before an IV, they have clearly never had one. I had one and never again while conscious. It was painful and they did not warn me fluid would feel horrible. I think they should have offered me water to drink as I was dehydrated but not nauseated, and could have lived with the headache for a few hours.

it is overused because it's easier for nurses. It is not my job to make theirs easy. It is theirs to avoid pain where possible. They did not even use local anesthetic and the nurse was useless, as she left a bruise.

By Fa5t3r — On Mar 07, 2013

@Valencia - I think it depends a lot on many different factors. I've had an IV while I was donating plasma and it can be painful, but usually it's just a bit of a sting.

Sometimes they need to use a bigger needle, sometimes the nurse is more or less competent, sometimes you might feel more or less nervous and tense.

Unfortunately if it's got to be done, it's got to be done. I'm glad they are pretty close to not needing to use needles at all. I can't wait until that technology becomes standard.

By irontoenail — On Mar 06, 2013

@anon276109 - I don't know what's going on with your treatment, but if you are scared, you need to tell the nurse and, if possible, a doctor. It's not right for you to be there in pain and feeling afraid. It's bad for you and bad for your treatment. They have a duty to help you understand what's going on, even if, right now, that's "we don't know exactly."

To me, it sounds like you might have had an embolism (I am not even close to being a doctor though) which is basically a clot. My mother had one in her foot once and it went away by itself, as they usually do. As long as you've got doctors who are taking it seriously, you don't need to worry.

By indigomoth — On Mar 06, 2013

@gravois - I don't really believe that works. There's no reason for liquids and things inserted intravenously to work that much faster than if you eat and drink them. I wouldn't pay a huge amount for someone to basically give me a painful cup of water and some tomato soup.

Not to mention the fact that you'd still have the chemical that causes most of the problems in your liver. I don't see how administering fluids would really help with that either.

Basically the only hangover cures are the standard ones. Vitamin C in some form, tomato juice, lots of water and, if you're up for it, a little splash of the hair of the dog (that one has actually worked in scientific studies).

By gravois — On Dec 14, 2012
I recently heard about a company in Las Vegas that operates a big truck that drives up and down the strip. For a fee they will administer an IV drip of fluids and vitamins fom people that are suffering from a hangover. Apparently the symptoms of the hangover go away almost immediately when the body is rehydrated in this way.

It sounds like a good idea to me and at the right time and place I would pay just about any amount of money to get what they are offering. And in a town like Las Vegas, I bet that business is good.

By anon276109 — On Jun 21, 2012

I have a portacath and I went to the emergency room with severe back pain and a swollen right arm. (I had a mastectomy on the right side). The nurse assessed the port but she seemed a bit nervous.

To make a long story short, four hours later when I woke up, and two IV bags later, my chest hurts and is swollen, and my throat feels constricted. The nurse did not put the needle all the way in and solution leaked into my body. Should I be alarmed about these after effects? I'm scared -- really scared.

By Penzance356 — On Apr 17, 2011

I think it's quite usual for IVs to be a little uncomfortable. But, if you have pain for a long time please check the place where they put the needle in. Sometimes the fluid leaks into the general area, which will make it swell. If you see this happening make sure to tell the nurse or doctor so they can fix the problem.

By MissMuffet — On Apr 16, 2011

@Valencia - I think it could be because of your grandmother's age, but maybe she also has veins which are difficult to find. I think that's quite common with senior people.

I've only needed IV fluids once and it was a little painful for me too. I had a student trying to put the needle in, which may be another reason for the pain. I guess you have to practice to get good at doing it!

After several attempts they did offer to numb the area before trying again, which really helped, though I still had a lot of bruises the next day.

By Valencia — On Apr 13, 2011

A couple of years ago my grandmother got sick and dehydrated, which led to her needing fluids by IV drip. I remember her saying it really hurt when the nurse was putting the needle into her arm.

Is IV therapy always painful? Perhaps this was because she is older and has more fragile skin?

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