IV Line Gross Contamination: How to Protect Patients

| Last updated on November 3, 2023

Peripheral intravenous catheters, more commonly known as IV lines, serve as crucial lifelines for administering medicine and fluids directly into our bloodstream. 

Yet, this direct access can paradoxically offer an unwelcome pathway for infections, leading to potential complications ranging from delayed healing and extended hospital stays to escalating medical bills, and in severe cases, life-threatening conditions. 

One of the greatest risks when receiving IV care is what’s called IV line gross contamination. IV line gross contamination refers to the harmful introduction of microbes or other pollutants into the intravenous delivery system, posing a serious risk to patient health. 

Fortunately, new technology now exists to guard IV lines and protect patients from gross contamination risks. 

In this article learn more about: 

  • What causes IV line gross contamination 
  • How to prevent IV line gross contamination from occurring 
  • Why line-to-line connection barriers should become a standard part of IV line care 

Key takeaways:

  • 71% of catheter-related bloodstream infections are linked to IV line hub contamination 
  • It’s much easier to prevent IV line contamination before it happens, than it is to treat an infection afterwards
  • A new line-to-line connection barrier called VALGuard® gives patients the protection they deserve and more freedom from the risks that can come with IV care 

What causes IV line gross contamination?

IV line gross contamination occurs when foreign substances such as bacteria, microbes or harmful pollutants are introduced into an intravenous delivery system. 

IV line gross contamination typically occurs when external contaminants such as body fluids, stool, urine or ventilator secretions make their way into the line through connection points such as luer locks. 

IV line gross contamination is preventable – but unfortunately it still occurs. 

Many things can cause contamination of an IV line. Some causes of IV line gross contamination include: 

Human error: When medical professionals don’t clean their hands or wear new gloves during the cannulation process, this can introduce harmful bacteria from the hands to the needle being inserted into the vein. 

Improper protection of IV sites: Once a catheter has been inserted into the vein, the skin around the insertion site is vulnerable. An appropriate medical dressing must be used to protect the insertion site from fluids and other harmful bacteria that can enter the veins through the IV.

Environmental contamination: Patients who move around the hospital while receiving IV treatment, NICU babies in isolettes who have diaper “blow-outs,” and ventilated patients who have secretions, are all examples of scenarios with increased risk of environmental contamination during IV care.

Catheter hub contamination: 71% of catheter-related bloodstream infections are caused by catheter hub contamination. 

IV line re-use: Once an IV line has been used, it is considered contaminated. Used IV lines should never be reused on patients. 

Gross IV line contamination refers to contamination that was:

  • Preventable, caused by human error or medical device failure  
  • Accidental, resulting in extreme and potentially lethal catheter-related bloodstream infection (CRBSI) or sepsis

Peripheral intravenous catheters (PIVCs) are the most commonly used IV line connectors. Contamination of the PIVC can cause a variety of mild to severe consequences for patients, including higher hospital bills and longer hospital stays. 

Patients who experience an IV line contamination are more likely to have: 

  • Increased pain or discomfort due to infection and treatments for infections 
  • Less trust in their health care team and the medical devices used to treat their illnesses 
  • More stress, worry and anxiety due to costs of medical care and long-term health consequences from contamination
  • Stress and anxiety that can have long-term and potentially debilitating effects on patient recovery 

How to prevent IV line gross contamination 

Contamination of an IV line can occur during the cannulation process (when an IV is inserted into the vein) or after the IV has been inserted. 

For many patients, IV lines and central lines are inserted with the intent to remain within the vein for some time in order to administer needed medications. 

According to the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality, IV lines that are semi-permanent should be changed every 72-96 hours in adult patients, and more often in children and youth. 

How to protect IV lines during cannulation 

In addition to following infection prevention measures during IV placement, there are some simple strategies that can be used to prevent human error during the cannulation process: 

  • Never use an IV that has already been used. As soon as an IV line has been used, it is considered contaminated. When in doubt, throw out an IV line rather than risk using a line that has already been contaminated. 
  • Always label IV lines. Use a patient’s name and other identifying information to make sure that you are using IV lines that are clean, and that patient fluids are stored under the correct name.
  • Immediately speak to a supervisor if there’s a risk of contamination. If you think that a patient has had fluids drawn or administered through a contaminated IV line, immediate steps should be taken to cleanse the patient and protect against contagious and harmful illnesses. 

The CDC also specifies stricter safety measurements when inserting a central line catheter, which enters a patient’s body through a central vein that leads directly to the heart. 

How to protect IV lines at home 

Patients may be discharged from the hospital with IV lines inserted, which means that safety measures should be taken at home as well as in-hospital. 

For patients and caregivers monitoring IV lines at home, always wash your hands thoroughly before touching the insertion site and clean your hands again afterward. 

Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests some simple strategies for keeping IV lines and insertion sites clean at home, such as: 

  • Keep the dressing over the IV dry at all times to protect the site from fluids and harmful bacteria.
  • Use a plastic cover wrapped around the IV site while bathing. If possible, use a detachable shower head to aim the stream of water away from your IV line dressing while bathing and showering.
  • Don’t remove the IV line dressing yourself if it gets wet – call a health professional to help you. 

And you should always call your medical team if you notice: 

  • New or worsening bruising around an IV site 
  • A lump beneath the skin at the IV site 
  • Redness or increased irritation around the insertion site (which could be an early indicator of an infection) 

Saving patient lives with new IV line protection technology 

Protecting IV lines is vital for the health and safety of the patients who have them. Today, a new line-to-line connection barrier called VALGuard® exists to protect IV luer lock and line connections from external contaminants like body fluids, stool, urine and vent secretions. 

VALGuard® ensures that medication and treatment is delivered safely, and it’s the only device that offers line connection protection and easy access in STAT or CODE situations. The transparent barrier allows for visual assessment of line connections, while protecting from external contaminants. Its soft material provides patient comfort and peace of mind, allowing patients the freedom to move around with a reduced contamination risk. 

See what using VALGuard® looks like in practice here: https://covalon.com/products/VALGuard®

Reach out today to request FREE samples of VALGuard® to protect your most at-risk vascular access patients. 


National Library of Medicine: Incidence of PIVC phlebitis

Healthline: The effects of anxiety on healing

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Peripheral IV in too long

Alberta Health Services  

WATCH: IV line contamination prevention

Johns Hopkins Medicine: Tips and tricks for bathing with an IV line

CDC: Central venous catheters

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