Get to Know Your Huber Needle for Chemo Port Access

Chemotherapy treatment involves needles, and that means you will get stuck with syringes, IV needles, butterfly needles, and Huber needles. Don't panic the first time you see that long, curved chemo needle—it is designed to make treatment easier on you. Learn how to prevent the sting of a needle stick, know the size of needle you need, and how the Huber needle is safer for you and your nurse.

Huber Needle Basics

Huber Needle for Chemotherapy Infusions
Huber Needle for Chemotherapy Infusions. Art © Pam Stephan

A Huber needle is a specially designed hollow needle used with a chemotherapy port (port-a-cath. The needle has a long, beveled tip that can go through your skin as well as the silicone septum of your implanted port's reservoir. The beveled tip of a Huber needle will not remove a core of silicone from your port—this prevents a chunk of silicone or skin from lodging in your catheter line (an all-too-common complication) and makes your port last longer. Dr. Ralph L. Huber, a dentist, designed the sharp, beveled, directional needle tip and Dr. Edward B. Tuohy, an anesthesiologist, refined it for use in spinal catheters.

Huber Needles Work For Many People

Huber needles are hard at work in several settings. These needles can be used during an infusion appointment to give chemotherapy, antibiotics, saline fluid, or blood transfusions. Huber needles may by left in place for a few hours or over several days if needed. Many people benefit from Huber needles—these are used in dialysis, lap-band adjustments, blood transfusions, and intravenous cancer treatments.

Not All Needles Are Equal

Huber Needle Tip Detail
Huber Needle Tip Detail. Art @ Pam Stephan

Huber needles come in several lengths and gauges. You should know the size of needle that works with your port. If your nurse uses a Huber needle that is too short, it won't work well for your blood draw or your infusion. If a Huber is too short, it may feel painful and tight. Likewise, a Huber needle that is too long for your port might wobble or spin around, causing damage to the silicone seal. Most infusion nurses will secure a Huber needle and catheter set in place with tape or an occlusive bandage.

Different Size Needles for Different Ports

Portacaths For Chemotherapy
Portacaths For Chemotherapy. Art © Pam Stephan

Needles, like infusion ports, come in different sizes. Infusion needles should be sized to match the type of implanted port that you have. Huber needles that are used for infusion ports come in lengths from 0.5 inches up to 1.5 inches. These needles are usually color-coded and come in different diameters ranging from a 21 gauge needle to a 25 gauge needle.

It's a good idea to ask your infusion nurse for the length and gauge of Huber needle that works best with your port, and keep this information in your health notebook. If you visit a different clinic or hospital, this information may save you some pain and prevent multiple needle sticks. Even if you receive all of your infusions at the same cancer center, you will likely be seeing different infusion nurses. In a perfect world, a new nurse might know exactly which size and gauge needle works best for you, but that's not always the case in real life. It pays to take an active role in your cancer care, even in these small details, and to ask about the needle at the start of each and every time your port is accessed. Using a standard needle instead of a specialized needle such as a huber needle can reduce the effectiveness of the devise, and may expose you to complications.

Ease Your Pain With Some Scream Cream

A Huber needle must be used to access your chemo port. The strong, tapered point of a Huber will be less painful than a non-tapered needle and will penetrate through skin and silicone cleanly. This type of needle does not remove a core of skin or silicone, so your port will reseal itself, and your skin will heal neatly when the needle is withdrawn.

If you want to prevent the pain of a needle stick, use some "scream cream”—a term nurses often use for Lidocaine gel or Emla cream. Once your needle is in place in your port, don't rock or twist it, because that will damage the silicone septum. Since lidocaine gel, creams, or patches can take 30 minutes or so to be fully effective, it's important to talk to your nurse before your infusion. Your clinic may have you apply a patch, cream, or gel 30 minutes to 60 minutes before your appointment, so that your infusion can be started promptly when you arrive. (Your oncologist may give you a prescription, but many of these products are available over-the-counter as well.)

Needle Safety For People with Cancer and Their Nurses

Intravenous chemotherapy is given through a needle and catheter, which must be removed at the end of treatment. The needle is in contact with your chemotherapy drugs and your blood supply. In order to prevent infections and accidental needle sticks, there are safety devices designed for use with these needles. The plastic wings and needle guards on your Huber needle protect you and your nurse from injury and infection. After use, the needles will be safely disposed of, along with medical waste. You will have a bandage over your needle puncture after treatment—be sure to keep it on 15-30 minutes after your infusion to keep the area clean and prevent leaks.

As we hear about medical errors in medicine, knowing your needle and how to care for yourself during and after chemotherapy is one way in which you can be your own advocate in your cancer care.

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