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What Is an Intravenous Line?

By Nicholas J. Novak
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An intravenous line, also known commonly as an IV line, is a medical device used to deliver a liquid substance directly into a patient’s bloodstream. There are usually three primary components: a needle, a catheter, and a fluid bag. Care providers will insert the needle into a vein, basically using that needle to guide the catheter, which is a type of clear plastic tubing. That tubing, in turn, is attached to a fluid bag that will deliver medication, food, or hydration as needed. IV lines are really common in hospitals and emergency medicine situations, and they can be used for a number of different things. Sometimes they’re mostly for stability, to be sure a person is getting the right amount of something like medication, but in other cases they can be truly life saving. Like most things, though, there are possible drawbacks. Patients whose lines stay in for a long time — usually more than 96 hours — are at greater risk of infection at the drip site, and veins can be damaged if the line isn’t inserted properly. Untrained or careless medical providers can also do serious harm if they aren’t paying attention to fluid being administered, since drugs pushed right into the bloodstream tend to go into effect much faster than those taken orally and overdoses are often fatal.

IV Basics

Intravenous therapy is just one of several methods used by medical care providers to make sure that patients are getting the drugs and fluids they need. In most cases they are easy to install and monitor, and they are also relatively non-invasive for patients. The simplest lines involve only a catheter attached to a fluid bag, though the bag usually has a timed-release valve that providers can use to control the speed of the fluid being administered. More valves and devices are often attached depending on the circumstances.

The most common place to insert a line is typically in any of the body’s peripheral veins, usually in the hands, the wrist, or the lower arm; sometimes the legs can also be used. Technicians look for veins that are near the surface of the skin and easy to access. Veins that have been scarred by repeated access aren’t often viable options, which sometimes causes care providers to look elsewhere or look deeper in order to get a dependable connection.

Advanced Options

Other more involved lines include central lines, which are larger catheters inserted into the major arteries in the torso, tunneled lines, which go under the surface of the sin from the point of entry to the target vein, and ports, which are more or less permanent access points and most common with people who need repeated therapy at a certain site and don’t want to risk exhausting their veins or causing excessive bruising. All three of these options are more complicated than standard IV drip lines, though they fall within the same basic family of care tools.

Why and When This Method is Used

In most cases, IV therapy is just one way of getting medication or other substances. Doctors and care providers typically choose intravenous lines as a matter of convenience and control. They can be an effective way to inject medicine into the body since, once in the bloodstream, the medicine is carried throughout the body as the heart cycles the blood. This usually allows for a drug to quickly take effect.

Some of the most commonly used intravenous substances include chemotherapy, hydrating fluids, and medicinal morphine, though most any substance can be used. Technicians sometimes start patients on saline, or salt water, drips to keep them hydrated and keep their veins open in case they need medicine or fluids during a procedure. This is very common for people who are admitted to hospitals or clinics with conditions that might worsen over time; getting the line started before trouble arises makes it easier to quickly respond and deliver medication more or less immediately.

Potential Drawbacks

As with most things, there are drawbacks to this method of medication delivery. Whenever the skin is penetrated or opened, the risk of infection increases. This can be particularly dangerous if the technician does not properly clean the equipment, as it could allow blood-borne infections to travel easily from person to person.

It’s also possible for an intravenous line to rupture or “blow” a vein. This can be painful for a patient, and can cause bruising and swelling. Using an intravenous line also can increase the chance of a drug overdose since the IV sends the medicine directly into the bloodstream. Technicians who aren’t paying attention can do potentially very serious harm if they do something like hook up the wrong fluid bag, too.

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