Skip to content

CVADs – a survival guide


This guest post is from Amanda Ullman, Tricia Kleidon, Anna Dean and the Paediatric Vascular Assessment and Management Service, Queensland Children’s Hospital, Brisbane.

We all love reliability. Central venous access devices (CVADs) are everywhere – across disciplines and departments, and we want them to work reliably, without complication.

But every day, somewhere in your hospital, we are problem-solving CVADs gone awry. And in many hospitals, no specialist vascular access teams are there to help you. 

Being a CVAD survivalist will help you – most likely at 3 a.m. Some situations must be escalated to specialists, but many can be quickly and effectively managed with simple, evidence-based techniques.

Needling a totally implanted device (ports)

Some totally implanted devices – or ports – are a pain. This is especially problematic in children with large amounts of adipose tissue or poorly positioned ports.

But when problem-solving this – everyone is different. Ask the child to sit up in the bed (or on their parent) and take off any restrictive clothing (e.g. bras for teenage girls). Use a rolled-up towel under their back/shoulder blade and ask the patient to push their chest out, allowing less tissue to cover the port – making it become more prominent.

Make sure you have a firm grip on the port and stretch the skin out over it to reduce the amount of tissue you must go through – this cannot be overemphasised.  There should be no slack in the skin.  You may need to change your grip several times to get this just right. Also, consider your own position when inserting; often, placing yourself at the head of the bed is helpful.

Post-CVAD insertion bleeding

Bleeding after the insertion of CVADs can require frequent dressing changes – not the easiest task on a post-anaesthetic child or toddler.

Applying small drops of medical-grade superglue or tissue adhesive (cyanoacrylate) directly on the CVAD insertion site results in immediate haemostasis without resulting in significant skin injury [1, 2]. Most practical on peripherally inserted central catheters (PICCs) and non-tunnelled CVADs, make sure the site is completely dry before applying the glue, try not to stick yourself to the child or the CVAD, and allow the glue to dry completely before covering it with the usual CVAD dressing.

Lumens that won’t aspirate or flush

Many factors can result in blocked CVAD lumens. A step-by-step approach is necessary…

  1. Don’t over complicate matters! Check for external occlusion due to a kinked line etc.
  2. Change the needleless access device (i.e. the bung) – these frequently dysfunction and result in blockage.
  3. Try small, pulsatile aspirates, and then flushes of normal saline using a 10mL syringe. Never use a syringe smaller than 10mL or be tempted to use excessive force – this can result in catheter breakage. Ask the patient to cough, breathe deeply, or change their position while aspirating and flushing.
  4. Assess for correct placement (chest x-ray, angiography).
  5. Instil a thrombolytic agent, such as Urokinase or Alteplase (unless contraindicated), allow it to dwell for at least 60 minutes, and then aspirate and/or flush with normal saline. This may need to be repeated several times.
  6. In the case of total occlusion where you can’t administer a thrombolytic agent by a simple push – use a 3-way tap and additional empty 10mL syringe.  Turn the 3-way tap off to the thrombolytic agent, pull back on the empty 10mL syringe to create a vacuum.  Turn the tap so it is open to the drug and patient, and the drug should infuse under negative pressure.
  7. If the blockage is a result of drug precipitation or build of lipid products; talk to the pharmacist for an appropriate dissolving agent such as hydrochloric acid or sodium bicarbonate.
  8. Phone a friend, preferably someone who can insert a replacement device.

Local CVAD site irritation vs. local infection

Identification of the issue is key.

If there are any signs of inflammation or infection (e.g., raised red area, ooze ), take a swab for microscopy, culture and sensitivity (MC&S).

Early libe sire infection

For uncomplicated exit site infections (i.e., no signs of systemic infection, purulent drainage or positive blood cultures) in long-term CVADs, the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommends the use of topical antimicrobial agents specific to the MC&S results (i.e. mupirocin ointment for S. aureus infection and ketoconazole or lotrimin ointment for Candida infection). If it is a short-term CVAD (e.g. PICC), take it out and organise a replacement device.

If infection doesn’t seem likely, identify what is causing the skin irritation.

Contact dermatitis

Most frequently, it will be the decontaminant (2% CHG in alcohol) that has not been left to dry adequately.  Some patients react to the fibres in the decontaminant stick. If possible, use bottled (2% CHG in alcohol) with gauze and forceps.  Additionally, consider using a barrier film product to provide symptom relief (i.e. itch, pain), and if symptoms persist, recommend changing to a less-irritating silicone-based dressing product.

Broken lumens

Oh God, it snapped. This happens – a lot, it seems.

Broken lumens don’t always result in the end of the entire CVAD, but it does depend on the type of CVAD. Silicone CVADs, such as HickmansTM, have catheter repair kits that sit with skilled clinicians, such as paediatric oncology and haematology. Peripherally inserted central catheters vary by brand and catheter material in their ability to be repaired. This is definitely a phone-a-friend situation. 

When repairing a broken catheter, consider the circumstances in which it fractured and environmental exposure. Blood cultures and prophylactic antibiotics might reduce the risk of subsequent infection.


1. Rickard, C.M., et al., A 4-arm randomized controlled pilot trial of innovative solutions for jugular central venous access device securement in 221 cardiac surgical patients. Journal of Critical Care, 2016. 36: p. 35-42.

2. Ullman, A.J., et al., Central venous Access device SeCurement And Dressing Effectiveness (CASCADE) in paediatrics: protocol for pilot randomised controlled trials. BMJ Open, 2016. 6(6).

3. Simcock, L., Managing occlusion in central venous catheters. Nurs Times, 2001. 97(21): p. 36-8.

4. Mermel, et al., Clinical practice guidelines for the diagnosis and management of intravascular catheter-related infection: 2009 update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clin Infect Dis, 2009. 49: p. 1-45.


  • The Vascular Assessment and Management Service at Lady Cilento Children's Hospital are superheros who prevent and treat vascular access disasters, while disguised as regular nurses. Amanda Ullman is a paediatric nurse researcher who likes to hang out with them, as they make her look clever.


No data was found

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 thoughts on “CVADs – a survival guide”

  1. I published a load of journal articles last year. But this blog is better than all of them combined. Read it and learn (I’ll do the weeping).