Infusion Therapy: What It Is and What to Expect

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Infusion therapy is a procedure in which medications are delivered directly into the bloodstream, usually with a needle and catheter that's inserted into a vein.

Infusion therapy is needed when a patient cannot take a drug orally. It's also a method of delivering medications in larger or more controlled amounts, such as during chemotherapy for cancer or with pain medication during childbirth.

You can get infusion therapy in a medical setting or at home. Insulin shots are an example of home infusion therapy.

This article explains the uses, benefits, and potential side effects of different kinds of infusion therapy.

infusion therapy

Edwin Tan / Getty Images

Types of Infusion Therapy and Their Uses

The types of infusion therapy are:

Intravenous (IV)

Intravenous therapy is when medications or fluids are injected directly into the bloodstream. IV therapy is commonly used for:

  • Maintaining fluids in the body after dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting, or surgery
  • Chronic conditions, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy for cancer
  • Antibiotic therapy
  • Administering anesthesia before surgery
  • Blood transfusions
  • Providing nutrients, like iron and B vitamins, when they are chronically low

Epidural

An epidural is a type of infusion therapy that is inserted around the spinal nerves in the lower back. Epidurals block pain signals from being sent from the spine to the brain. An epidural can administer the following:

  • Analgesia (pain relief)
  • Anesthesia (numbing)
  • Steroids for pain, as with acute back pain

Epidurals are best-known as a way to prevent or numb the pain of childbirth, but they can also be used to prevent pain during and after surgery. Epidurals might also help relieve acute pain.

Intramuscular

Intramuscular infusion therapy is when medication is inserted into muscle tissue. Uses of intramuscular infusion therapy include:

  • Hormone therapy, such as testosterone or estrogen injections for cancer treatment
  • Antibiotics
  • Vaccines
  • Antibodies (immunoglobulins), which are proteins made by cells to help the immune system fight bacteria, viruses, or other harmful substances

Subcutaneous

Subcutaneous infusion therapy is when drugs are injected into fat underneath the skin. Subcutaneous injection sites include the upper arms, stomach, upper thighs, lower back and buttocks. Subcutaneous therapy includes:

Benefits of Infusion Therapy

The benefits of infusion therapy include:

  • Fast-acting relief, especially in emergency situations, like after an allergic reaction or during childbirth
  • Medication for those who cannot take pills orally
  • Administering larger and/or controlled amounts of medication
  • Intramuscular and subcutaneous injections help drugs remain in the body longer
  • High success rates for several conditions

Infusion Therapy Success Rates

Several studies have shown high success rates for infusion therapies. For example:

  • Epidurals are about 98%–99% successful in relieving pain for people giving birth.
  • Monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 reduced viral burden—the amount of virus healthcare providers can find in your body—by 90% in trial participants, and emergency room visits and infection time were cut by almost half.
  • Ketamine infusion therapy could be a fast and effective treatment for chronic depression, with about half of patients in one study responding to treatment.
  • Some cancers respond better to chemotherapy, a type of infusion therapy that kills harmful cells, than others. For example, a recent study found prostate cancer patients were about 10% more likely to survive with chemotherapy than other cancer treatments. But there are other infusion therapies available to treat cancer that have fewer side effects than chemotherapy. These include hormone therapy. antibodies, vaccines, and immunotherapy.

Side Effects of Infusion Therapy

Infusion therapy side effects might include:

  • Redness at the site of injection
  • Swelling
  • Injury at the injection site
  • Muscle pain
  • Allergic reactions like rash, difficulty breathing, and confusion

The following are some risks associated with each type of infusion therapy.

IV Therapy Complications

IV therapy complications may include:

  • Burning, stinging, or redness if IV solution leaks onto skin surrounding the injection site
  • Pus leaking from injection if infected
  • Pulmonary edema, or excess lung fluid: This requires quick medical attention and is marked by shortness of breath and coughing up a frothy substance.
  • Air embolism (when air enters the vein): Symptoms include shortness of breath, increased heart rate, shoulder pain, light-headedness, and confusion.

Epidural Therapy Complications

Epidural therapy complications may include:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Hot flashes
  • Damaged blood vessel
  • Damage to injection site nerves
  • Losing bladder and bowel control

Intramuscular Therapy Complications

Intramuscular therapy complications may include:

  • Nerve damage
  • Medication leaking into surrounding tissue
  • Muscle atrophy, or when a muscle loses strength
  • Bone injury

Subcutaneous Therapy Complications

Subcutaneous therapy complications may include:

  • Blister at injection site
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea
  • Kidney problems
  • Blood clots

Who Should Not Get Infusion Therapy?

Infusion therapy isn't for everybody, including:

  • Some children under 12
  • Some older adults
  • In some cases, people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Those with a history of heart problems
  • People experiencing heavy bleeding, including during childbirth
  • Those who've had blood clots in the past
  • People giving birth who are experiencing low blood pressure


Before undergoing infusion therapy, be sure to share your medical history and any concerns you have with your healthcare provider.

How to Prepare and What to Expect

To prepare for infusion therapy, you'll want to ask your practitioner about the following:

  • If you have to avoid any foods or modify your medication schedule before treatment
  • If others are allowed to come with you to the procedure
  • If there will be pain and something to relieve that pain
  • What will be used to treat allergic reactions if they arise
  • How many sessions are required for treatment
  • Any side effects you should monitor at home
  • How many training sessions you and your caregivers will receive for home infusion therapy
  • How to measure medications accurately for home infusion therapy

Expect the following during infusion therapy:

  • That the injection site and needles are disinfected
  • That the injection site is covered after your treatment
  • Having a comfortable chair to sit in throughout the treatment
  • Anesthesia for some larger needles that are used during treatment
  • Being monitored throughout your therapy
  • For home fusion, that you and your caregivers receive adequate training and follow-up appointments

Summary

Infusion therapy is when a medication or nutrient is inserted directly into a person's system. Infusion therapy can be intravenous (IV), meaning through an IV needle; an epidural, which is inserted around nerves in the spinal cord; intramuscular, which is inserted in muscle tissue; or subcutaneous, inserted into body fat under the skin.

A Word From Verywell

From vaccines to chemotherapy to monoclonal antibodies to treating COVID-19, infusion therapy has been a lifesaving treatment method for many. If being treated by a needle with powerful drugs sounds intimidating to you, express your concerns to your healthcare provider before the infusion therapy.

Also discuss side effects and potential complications and how to treat them. If you're getting home infusion therapy, be sure to ask for clear instructions and proper training beforehand. If you have a chronic illness, it's important to consider the different types of infusion therapy available to you, whether for pain relief, immunotherapy, or for rebalancing nutrients to prevent further disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does infusion therapy take?

    This can depend on the condition being treated. Chemotherapy for cancer, for example, can take about three to six months. Epidurals, on the other hand, last about one to two hours. Hormone therapy for prostate cancer can last months to years, while monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 require only one sitting of about two hours.

  • What is the difference between a transfusion and an infusion?

    A transfusion is when blood or parts of blood are donated from another person and put into a patient's bloodstream. An infusion, on the other hand, is when substances such as medication, anesthetics, vitamins, and vaccines are inserted into the bloodstream.

  • What conditions does infusion therapy typically treat?

    Infusion therapy is usually used for chronic conditions, including cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, autoimmune diseases, acute pain nutrient deficiencies, and dehydration. Infusion therapy is also used for pain relief during emergencies or surgery, such as during childbirth. Antibody treatments, such as those for COVID-19, and vaccines are also infusion therapies.

31 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mount Sinai. Infusion therapy.

  2. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Home infusion therapy services.

  3. Doyle GR, McCutcheon JA. Chapter 8.2: Intravenous Fluid Therapy. In: Doyle GR, McCutcheon JA, ed. Clinical Procedures for Safer Patient Care. British Columbia Institute of Technology; 2015.

  4. Weill Cornell Medicine. Infusion therapy.

  5. NHS. Epidural.

  6. Doyle GR, McCutcheon JA. Chapter 7.4 Intramuscular Injections. In: Doyle GR, McCutcheon JA, ed. Clinical Procedures for Safer Patient Care. British Columbia Institute of Technology; 2015.

    • Polania Gutierrez JJ, Munakomi S. Intramuscular injection. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022. PMID: 32310581
  7. Justiz Vaillant AA, Jamal Z, Ramphul K. Immunoglobulin. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022. PMID: 30035936

  8. Doyle GR, McCutcheon JA. Chapter 7.3: Intradermal and Subcutaneous Injections. In: Doyle GR, McCutcheon JA, ed. Clinical Procedures for Safer Patient Care. British Columbia Institute of Technology; 2015.

  9. Arendt K, Segal S. Why epidurals do not always workRev Obstet Gynecol. 2008;1(2):49-55. PMID: 18769661

  10. Precision Vaccinations. REGEN-COV (Ronapreve) Monoclonal Antibody Cocktail.

  11. McInnes LA, Qian JJ, Gargeya RS, DeBattista C, Heifets BD. A retrospective analysis of ketamine intravenous therapy for depression in real-world care settingsJournal of Affective Disorders. 2022;301:486-495. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2021.12.097

  12. Hoeh B, Würnschimmel C, Flammia RS, et al. Effect of chemotherapy on overall survival in contemporary metastatic prostate cancer patientsFront Oncol. 2021;0. doi:10.3389/fonc.2021.778858

  13. National Cancer Institute. Hormone Therapy to Treat Cancer.

  14. National Cancer Institute. Monoclonal Antibodies.

  15. American Cancer Society. Cancer vaccines and their side effects.

  16. Schirrmacher V. From chemotherapy to biological therapy: A review of novel concepts to reduce the side effects of systemic cancer treatment (Review)Int J Oncol. 2018;54(2):407-419. PMID: 30570109

  17. MedlinePlus. Intramuscular therapy.

  18. Wasserman RL. Common infusion-related reactions to subcutaneous immunoglobulin therapy: Managing patient expectationsPatient Prefer Adherence. 2008;2:163-166. PMID: 19920958

  19. Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. Subcutaneous Immunoglobulin (SCIg) Therapy General Information.

  20. Stay Safe MN. Suggested criteria for the use of outpatient antiviral therapy for COVID-19 in children.

  21. Coulter K. Successful infusion therapy in older adultsJournal of Infusion Nursing. 2016;39(6):352-358. doi:10.1097/nan.0000000000000196

  22. Katz U, Achiron A, Sherer Y, Shoenfeld Y. Safety of intravenous immunoglobulin (Ivig) therapy. Autoimmunity Reviews. 2007;6(4):257-259. doi:10.1016/j.autrev.2006.08.011

  23. NHS. Epidural.

  24. National Cancer Institute. Blood transfusion.

  25. Cancer Research UK. Your chemotherapy plan.

  26. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Epidurals.

  27. Prostate Cancer UK. Hormone therapy.

  28. Combat COVID. What are monoclonal antibodies?

  29. National Cancer Institute. Infusion.

By Neha Kashyap
Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.