Infusion Therapy: What to Know Before You Go
If you’re living with certain chronic conditions, you and your doctor may have discussed infusion medications as a treatment option.
Infusion treatment is the administration of medications—for instance, corticosteroids or biologics—directly into the bloodstream via a catheter inserted into a vein. Infusions may be helpful when oral medications aren’t working or aren’t a good option. This type of treatment is sometimes also called intravenous or IV therapy.
Infusions are typically given over one or more hours in an infusion center or other clinical setting, though it may be possible to have done at home with the aid of a registered nurse.
For some people, the thought of infusion therapy can be daunting. You may have some questions about what to expect before you feel ready to go to an appointment. Fortunately, we’ve got the answers you’re looking for—from an infusion expert and others who’ve been there.
Here’s what to know about infusion therapy, plus tips for making your experience more comfortable.
What Happens During Infusion Therapy?
If you’ve ever been given an IV for hydration at a hospital or doctor’s office, you likely already have some sense of how infusions work. It’s a similar process for infused medications.
First, your healthcare provider will sterilize the skin where they plan to insert the needle into your vein. The needle is removed but a flexible catheter remains inside of your vein. Then, they’ll attach a tube to it. This tube connects to a bag or bottle containing the medication. Over several hours, the medication will drip from the bag into your vein. A nurse or infusion specialist will check on you throughout the process.
On infusion day, you can expect a few things. “Your healthcare practitioner will make sure you’re in adequate health to receive therapy that day,” says Pamela McIntyre, RN, of Paragon Healthcare in Plano, Texas and director-at-large at the Infusion Nurses Society. “They’ll also verify the order the doctor prescribed. Then they’ll let you know what to expect. They’ll also likely prep the medication while you’re there [rather than beforehand—in case you’re late to the appointment, for example], and make sure you’re comfortable.”
During and after infusion therapy, a medical professional will monitor how you’re doing, McIntyre says, and check for any potential reactions.
Like all drugs, infused medications may cause side effects. Be sure to talk to your doctor about these potential risks prior to your infusion appointment.
With an infusion, there’s also the risk of infusion reactions, which are similar to allergic reactions. If they happen, these reactions are typically mild and may include rash, hives, or IV site tenderness. In severe cases, these reactions may include shortness of breath and other more serious effects—though these may be more rare. Sometimes, you will be given other medications before your treatment such as fluids or steroids to try to reduce the risk of an infusion-related reaction.
Regular monitoring during and after the infusion means that issues or adverse reactions that could come up can be handled promptly. “Typically, patients will see a specialized nurse who is trained in accessing veins. They understand infusion and can manage complications that can occur,” McIntyre says.
After the infusion itself is complete, you may be required to stay at the infusion center for another hour so the staff can continue to monitor you for possible reactions.When the onsite staff have made sure you’re cleared to leave, you can generally drive or take yourself home.
Tips for Preparing for Your Appointment
On infusion day, there are a few things you can do to ensure a seamless experience.
Unless otherwise directed by your doctor, you should eat a healthy breakfast and make sure you drink plenty of water on the morning of your infusion. Eating a healthy breakfast will help you feel your best, and drinking enough water helps ensure your veins are dilated (more open), so your nurse can easily find a vein.
You may get hungry during your infusion time, and you can usually eat and drink while you’re there unless your healthcare provider says otherwise. Your clinic may offer snacks, and it’s okay to bring your own, says Anita Williams, a patient advocate living with multiple sclerosis since 2015. “Although [an infusion center] provides water and coffee, I bring my own beverage of choice and a snack,” she says. Plus, a familiar snack can help make the experience a bit more enjoyable.
Bring a Friend
Infusion therapy can sometimes cause nervous feelings—and that’s totally understandable. Depending on the treatment center, you may bring a friend or family member for some extra support and company.
Infusions take time, so come ready to fend off potential boredom. “When I prepare for my infusions, I think of it like taking a plane or bus or train for a couple of hours. I bring things with me that will keep me from being bored,” says Anita.
For Vickie Wilkerson, a patient advocate living with psoriasis, infusion day has turned into self-care time. “On infusion day, I suggest bringing something to read—or listen to music. You are definitely going to want something to help pass the time. I use the time during the infusion for myself. I just listen to music and relax.”
Consider bringing a book, smartphone, laptop, journal or notebook, headphones, crossword puzzle, or deck of cards to help pass the time.
Bring Other Essentials
Anita also makes sure to bring a sweater, since air conditioning can make the room cool, as well as a phone charger with a long cord so she can plug in her phone.
Don’t Worry About the Bathroom
Need to use the bathroom? No problem. Your medication will likely be hung beside you so you can wheel it into the bathroom.
Infusion therapy may get easier the more you do it. “The infusion process gets more familiar and quicker over time. I have become a bit of a pro,” Anita says. To her, the infusion process has become as simple as hanging out for a few hours.
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