When you’re facing treatment for cancer, you may start hearing about infusion treatments, therapies, and clinics. Infusions are a way to deliver drugs and medications directly into the bloodstream instead of taking them as pills or liquids.
Infusion treatments are commonly used to deliver chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy to treat cancer. Infusion therapies are liquids usually given from a plastic bag filled with medicine that's attached to a thin, soft tube called a catheter that delivers the fluid into your body through a vein.
Nurses will typically administer infusion therapies in an outpatient setting—at a doctor’s office, an infusion clinic, or even in your home with the help of a visiting nurse. In addition, you may get infusion therapies if you’re in the hospital.
This article will explain infusion therapy, its benefits, how it can treat patients, and what you can expect as a patient getting infusion treatments.
What Is Infusion Therapy?
Infusion therapy is one way of getting medications into your body. The medicines delivered are given in a liquid form injected into your body over time. The most common way to get an infusion is by a nurse administering medication from a bag connected to a tube that flows the liquid into your bloodstream.:
The medicine typically goes into your vein (intravenously, or IV) or sometimes an artery. Some of these medications can be administered in other ways, including:
- Under your skin (subcutaneously)
- Into your muscles (intramuscularly)
- Into the fluid around your spine (as an epidural)
- Into a body cavity (like the abdomen)
- Directly to a specific body part (like the liver)
Infusion therapies may also include drugs like insulin or chemotherapy delivered through a small pump, a needle, or an auto-injector, which is a self-administered dose prefilled into a spring-loaded syringe.
There are three reasons you may need to get your therapies through an infusion:
- Infusions are helpful for patients with conditions that make it difficult to swallow pills or liquids.
- Some drugs, like chemotherapy, are too toxic to be delivered quickly and need to be dripped into the blood slowly over an extended period.
- Some specific types of drugs can only be given as infusions or injections because, if swallowed, the stomach will break them down or they won’t get into the bloodstream through the gut.
Cancer and Infusion Therapy
For cancer patients, treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy are often given by infusion.
Chemotherapy drugs are quite toxic to the body, so they need to be given slowly to lessen side effects. However, not all chemotherapies are infusions—some are taken orally.
Other types of cancer therapies, including immunotherapies and targeted therapies, are made from monoclonal antibodies. Treatment with monoclonal antibodies almost always requires infusion therapy to administer.
Monoclonal antibodies are biologic drugs that must be administered directly into the blood or injected under the skin. Antibodies are naturally occurring proteins in your body and can directly target specific proteins and direct the immune system to attack them.
What to Expect During Infusion Treatments
There are many places that you can go to get infusion therapies. They may be performed in your home, a doctor’s office, the hospital, or a specialty infusion clinic. You may have access to a private room for your treatments, or you may get your infusion in a large room with other patients.
How you get your infusions depends on your insurance benefits and the locally available options. Ask your doctor about what to expect, check out the clinic's website, or call ahead with any questions.
Types of Lines
Infusion treatments can be administered in a variety of ways. For example, a nurse might insert an IV line each time you need an infusion by placing a needle into the vein in the back of your hand or inner forearm. This procedure will need to be repeated with each infusion treatment. The type of catheter used is called a peripheral IV line, or PIV.
If you’re getting a series of infusions, you may need options that will not require needle placement each time you come in. This will also reduce discomfort and scarring at the PIV site. These devices stay in your body for an extended period and are removed when they’re no longer required.
A central line is bigger than a normal needle catheter and can be inserted into multiple places like the chest, arm, neck, or groin. It’s inserted during minor surgery either at a clinic or hospital.
Once the line is placed, the infusion can take time to administer. If the drugs are pushed in quickly by a nurse inserting medicine through a syringe into the line, called an IV push, it could take just minutes. Most infusions take about an hour.
Some medications may need a longer treatment time because they are more toxic to the body at higher concentrations. Dosing and delivery of the drugs are regulated by a machine called an IV pump.
Because it can take some time to get your infusion, make sure to eat a light meal or snack a bit before your chemotherapy treatment. Ask your doctor or the infusion clinic about eating before other treatments.
The number of treatments you need and how often you need them will depend on the kind of treatment you're getting and for what condition. Ask your doctor for more information about your specific treatment course. You may get your treatment in cycles that give your body a break between treatment courses.
Risks and Side Effects of Infusion Therapy
The attending nurse at the infusion clinic will monitor you for adverse effects of the infusion, including an allergic-like reaction called an immune reaction or a hypersensitivity reaction.
These reactions can happen with your first dose or any dose of an infusion drug. They can also occur immediately or take longer to appear
If you have any of the following symptoms while getting an infusion, let your nurse know immediately:
- Itching, rashes, or hives
- Swelling of your lips, eyelids, or tongue, or any part of the body, especially the limbs (called edema)
- A flush of redness in your face and neck
- Fever or chills
- Cough or shortness of breath
- Pain in your muscles or joints
Common reactions at the infusion site for any drugs include:
Monoclonal antibody side effects include
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and weakness
- Digestive symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Low blood pressure
Chemotherapy side effects include:
- Hair loss
- Bruising and bleeding, anemia (lack of red blood cells)
- Digestive symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, appetite changes, constipation, and diarrhea
- Sores and pain in the mouth and throat
- Numbness, tingling, pain
Infusions are medications delivered into the body through a line. In cancer treatment, they include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted treatments. Biologic drugs are often given by infusion. The infusion can be done at a clinic or at home. They can be administered through a peripheral line or central line. Infusions can have side effects, depending on the drug.