RSI Intubation for Nurses: Rapid Sequence Intubation

RSI Intubation for Nurses: Rapid Sequence Intubation

William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C
William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C

Author | Nurse Practitioner

RSI, or Rapid sequence intubation, is the process where we intubate people in the hospital, pre-hospital, and emergency department settings when the patient is awake.

It involves multiple different steps that need to occur to quick succession, to provide first sedation, then paralysis, then insertion of the endotracheal tube into the trachea. 

Learn all about RSI intubation, and specifically what the nurse’s role during an intubation is, and which compications and montioring parameters to watch out for!

RSI intubation: rapid sequence intubation for nurses Featured Image

Indications for RSI Intubation?

So when does a person need intubed? Well, this really depends, but emergent intubations often involve severe respiratory distress

Patients in acute respiratory failure will typically present with:


    Increased respiratory rate > 20 rpm


    SPO2 < 90%

    Increased WOB

    Increased work of breathing characterized by use of accessory muscles

    Adventitious Breath Sounds

    Presence of abnormal breath sounds including wheezing, crackles, rhonchi, or diminishment

    Other Abnormal Vital signs

    May be present including tachycardia, hypertension, hypotension, fever, or altered mental status

    Tripod position is when a patient is sitting over the bed leaning forward, supporting their upper body with their hands on the knees or another surface. This helps accessory muscles breath more easily, but can be an ominous sign to someone who is in respiratory distress. Think COPD!

    Indications for Rapid Sequence intubation (RSI intubation) includes:

    • Acute Respiratory Failure (from pneumonia, COPD, CHF, Covid, etc)
    • Anaphylactic reaction or Angioedema
    • When the patient cannot protect their airway (severe alcohol intoxication, drugs, etc.)
    • For surgery

    The Nurses Role during RSI

    So what is YOUR responsibility as the nurse?  Well don’t worry, you shouldn’t actually be the one to intubate the patient (although there are some exceptions such as NICU nurses and Flight nurses). 

    The person who placed the Endotracheal (ET) tube is usually a paramedic, physician, and sometimes an advanced practice provider (PA, NP, or CRNA). This is usually:

    • EM Physician but sometimes APP
    • IM Physician
    • Anesthesia

    The nurse’s role is not to physically intubate, but nurses are essential in making sure the intubation goes safely and smoothly. They are also on the front lines to notice and intervene when things go wrong!

    The nurse’s role is to prepare the patient and equipment,  administer the medications, help manage the airway (although this is usually the job of respiratory therapists), and monitor the patient.

    Afterwards, they are required to keep the patient sedated with titratable sedatives.

    It is still important for nurses to understand how the RSI intubation process goes, even if they are not the ones placing the ET tube. It takes a team of nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians, and more to have a successful intubation without any complications.

    Alternatives to RSI intubation

    Are there any alternatives to intubation? Yes and no. 

    There are certainly treatments we can try before jumping to intubation. These include nebulizers, certain IM/SQ meds, a non-rebreather, High-flow nasal cannula, and CPAP or BIPAP.

    However, usually when intubation is decided on, it is when the patient is in impending respiratory arrest, or when the other treatments already aren’t enough. 

    RSI intubation is kind of our last saving measure that we can do to save their life and stabilize their respiratory system. 

    RSI Medications

    Before diving into the steps of RSI, we need to review the important medications that are given during RSI.

    It is the nurses responsibility to draw these up, reconstitute them, and give them. Any medication that a nurse gives, they should know how the medication works, any side effects, and what to monitor for.


    First we’re going to talk about sedatives. A sedative is a medication that acts as a CNS depressant – essentially putting the patient to sleep. Different sedatives work in different ways. Sometimes, it takes multiple different sedatives at the same time to effectively sedate a patient.

    Sedatives are also called induction agents – inducing sedation in the patient. They also decrease the sympathetic response, making the body better tolerate the overall intubation experience.

    In regards to RSI Intubation, SEDATIVES ARE ALWAYS GIVEN FIRST

    This is because you need to knock the patient out before you paralyze them, as this is a very frightening experience if not. It can also cause tachycardia, hypertension, and increased ICP if you don’t!


    Etomidate is the most common sedative that will be ordered for RSI intubation. 

    Etomidate does not offer any analgesia, so sometimes fentanyl is added to minimize the SNS stimulation for patients with significant cardiovascular disease or increased ICP patients.

    Etomidate does not really affect blood pressure, but it can cause some mild increase in airway resistance.

    Side Effects & Monitoring


    Etomidate can cause myoclonus to occur, which is brief and harmless, but can be mistaken for a seizure.

    Adrenal Suppression

    Etomidate can cause adrenal suppression for 12-24 hours after the injection. This could potentially impact hemodynamic stability (blood pressure), mainly in patients who are at risk such as those with pre-existing adrenal insufficiency or severe sepsis.

    Patients with severe sepsis who are intubated with etomidate and become hypotensive despite fluids and a vasopressor should be given a 1x dose of hydrocortisone 100mg IV.

    Heart Failure Exacerbation

    Etomidate doesn’t cause HF, but patients with pre-existing HF may have exacerbated underlying myocardial dysfunction after administration.


    Versed, also called Midazolam, is the most commonly used Benzodiazepine used for sedation for RSI intubation.

    Versed also does not cause analgesia, but is a good choice for patients in status epilepticus because it offers anticonvulsant properties.

    However, it can decrease the blood pressure, so this should be avoided in patients who are hemodynamically unstable.

    Side Effects & Monitoring


    Versed can cause a decrease in Mean Arterial Pressure (MAP) by 10-25%. This means Versed should generally be avoided in hypotensive patients or those at risk for hypotension (severe sepsis, trauma, etc).


    Ketamine is a newer sedative used for RSI intubation. It’s structurally similar to PCP, and can cause some interesting side effects. However, it can be a great sedative and analgesic to help with rapid sequence intubation.

    The good thing about Ketamine is it preserves the respiratory drive. This makes it excellent choice for minor procedural sedation where intubation is not needed.

    However, the increased catecholamine stimulation can cause tachycardia, hypertension, and possibly increased ICP, making it a poor choice for head traumas and hypertensive crises, and also those with cardiac ischemia or aortic dissections.

    However, this can be helpful in patients who are hypotensive to increase BP or in severe asthmatics to cause bronchodilation (in theory). 

    Side Effects & Monitoring


    Ketamine increases the risk of laryngospasm, especially in those with history of upper respiratory disease or asthma. This is because ketamine does not suppress pharyngeal and laryngeal reflexes. In this case, it can be helpful to use fentanyl with it


    Ketofol is the combination of ketamine and fentanyl. This can cause analgesia, sedation, and amnesia, and can be a good choice for patients with severe bronchospasm.

    Increased Cardiac Activity

    Ketamine causes increased stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, releasing catecholamines leading to tachycardia, hypertension, increased myocardial demand, and even possible cardiac arrhythmias.

    This can be beneficial in patients who are hypotensive, but dangerous for those with active cardiac disease or aortic dissection.

    Emergence Reactions

    Ketamine can cause an “emergence phenomenon” primarily when used for procedural sedation. This is when the patient may experience vivid and/or disturbing dreams as they wake up. Hallucinations and frank delirium may occur postoperatively up to 24 hours. 

    This usually does not happen with patients who are intubated and sedated for over 24 hours.


    Propofol is a common sedative, and a frequent agent of choice for maintaining sedation with a slow titratable drip. It has a characteristic appearance of milk.

    Propofol is the drug that Michael Jackson was found to have overdosed on. It causes deep sedation and does diminish the patients respiratory drive.

    Propofol has the following actions on the body:

    • Decreases airway resistance: Good for bronchospasm
    • Neuro-Inhibition: Good for intracranial pathology
    • Suppresses SNS: Good for hypertension, bad for hypotension & conditions which decrease cerebral perfusion

    Propofol IV Push?

    Make sure your specific state and facility allow RNs to give IV boluses of propofol, and if so, make sure the provider is always at the bedside. Since propofol causes deep sedation, it may not be within your scope as a nurse to push it. Seems silly, but always protect your license!

    Side Effects & Monitoring


    Propofol has a blood pressure lowering effect, which can decrease the MAP by 10%, but sometimes even ≥ 30%.

    Use caution if the patient has a borderline low pressure or baseline MAP of 60-70 mmHg.

    Patients at risk for hypotension include severe sepsis, trauma, severe aortic stenosis, etc.


    Propofol can cause bradyarrythmias to occur. This is more common with high doses, prolonged duration, and concurrent medications like beta-blockers, paralytics, and opioids. Patients with a history of cardiac disease are at increased risk.

    QT Prolongation

    QT prolongation can predispose your patient to dangerous ventricular arrhythmias like Torsades de Pointes and VFIB. This is more common with:

    • High propofol doses
    • Elderly patients
    • Structural heart disease
    • Congenital Long QT
    • QT prolonging medications
    • Electrolyte Disturbances


    Anaphylaxis is rare with Propofol but can occur, usually within 5-10 minutes after infusion. Those with a history of soybean or egg allergy are probably fine to take it.

    Soybean Allergy

    Allergy to soybeans or egg used to be a contraindication for receiving propofol, but newer formulations of the drug rarely produce a reaction and are likely safe

    Elevated Triglycerides & Lipase

    Propofol is a lipophilic fatty solution which contains triglycerides. Infusion can lead to elevations in triglycerides and lipase, which usually occurs 2-4 days after initiation. This can lead to pancreatitis, especially in those who are already at risk.


    PRIS stands for Propofol Infusion Syndrome. PRIS is rare but deadly. When occurs, the patient suffers from acute refractory bradycardia which may lead to asystole, and also may have:

    • severe metabolic acidosis,
    • cardiovascular collapse,
    • rhabdomyolysis
    • hyperlipidemia
    • renal failure
    • hepatomegaly

    This is more common with high doses (>4mg/kg/hr) and long duration of use (>48 hours).

    Choosing the Right Sedative

    There are some specific scenarios where one sedative may be more appropriate than others. Regardless, it is always the Providers preference and what they’re familiar with. 

    Head Injury or Stroke


    Status Epilepticus

    Propofol or Etomidate

    Severe Bronchospasm

    Propofol or Ketamine (+/- fentanyl)

    Cardiovascular Disease

    Etomidate +/- Fentanyl


    Etomidate 0.15mg/kg or ketamine 1mg/kg


    Paralytics, also called neuromuscular blocking agents (NMBAs), are given immediately after the sedative kicks in, which produces a paralyzing effect on the body. This relaxes the patients muscles and makes the intubation easier for the Physician or APP, and minimizes complications.


    Succinylcholine or Sux for short, is the classic paralyzing agent for RSI. It is termed a “depolarizing neuromuscular blocker” because they cause the muscle cells to “fire” or depolarize, but then don’t let the muscles repolarize, leading to paralysis.

    While used in most scenarios, this is contraindicated in conditions which may cause hyperkalemia or may lead to an exaggerated response. This is because even in normal patients, Sux can increase potassium levels by 0.5-1.0 mEq/L.

    These conditions include:

    • Malignant hyperthermia (personal or family history)
    • Neuromuscular disease with denervation (i.e. MS)
    • Muscular dystrophy
    • Stroke > 72h old (especially with significant motor denervation)
    • Rhabdho
    • Significant burn(s) over 72h old
    • Significant Hyperkalemia

    Myesthenia Gravis

    Patients with MG are resistant to Sux, so should be given 2mg/kg

    Side Effects & Monitoring


    Sux commonly causes fasciculations of the muscles prior to causing full paralysis.

    This may increase ICP and stimulate emesis leading to aspiration.


    A metabolite of Sux can stimulate muscarinic receptors to release acetylcholine, producing bradycardia of the sinus node. This can be treated with atropine.


    Rocuronium or “ROC” for short is a “non-depolarizing” NMBA used for sedation for RSI intubation. This is because it is an acetylcholine antagonist, blocking its effects and leading to paralysis.

    ROC is used when Sux is contraindicated as above.

    Some conditions which may decrease the efficacy of the paralysis include:

    • Respiratory alkalosis
    • Hypercalcemia
    • Demyelinating lesions (MS)
    • Peripheral neuropathies
    • Muscle trauma

    Side Effects & Monitoring


    ROC can increase peripheral vascular resistant and cause a temporary increase in BP. It can also cause transient hypotension in some people. 


    ROC can cause temporary tachycardia for about 5 minutes.

    Right-sided HF

    ROC may worsen pulmonary HTN, leading to right-sided heart failure in those who are predisposed.

    Other Paralytics

    Other non-depolarizing paralytics include Vecuronium and Pancuronium, but these are not used as often.

    Vecuronium, shortened to “VEC”, is not used as frequently, as it has a longer onset of action – around 3 minutes. This can be reduced with a smaller “priming” dose.

    The RSI Intubation Procedure

    Prepare the Patient

    To prepare the patient for RSI intubation, make sure they are positioned in the “sniffing” position, supine with their neck flexed. Placing a towel between their head and neck can help.

    Make sure the patient is getting hyper-oxygenated at the same time, usually with a Non-rebreather or a Bag-valve mask at 100%.

    Respiratory therapists are often in charge of airway along with the Provider.

    Place the patient on the monitor including telemetry, continuous pulse ox, and end-tidal CO2 if possible.

    Explain the procedure to the patient and ensure informed consent is obtained, either written or verbal. Written is often not able to be obtained due to the emergent nature of many intubations.

    If the patient is altered, ensure there is no DNR or DNI order form or POLST. 

    Using a BVM

    If using a BVM hooked up to 100% oxygen, make sure you are squeezing the BVM with each spontaneous breath to ensure the valve opens and the oxygen is given to the patient!

    Prepare the Equipment

    Bring the code cart at the bedside. You don’t necessarily need to hook up the defibrillation pads, but always follow facility protocol.

    Most of the equipment needed will be found in the Airway drawer, usually one fo the last drawers.

    The equipment needed for the actual intubation will be:

    • Laryngoscope
    • ET tube
    • Stylet
    • 10cc syringe
    • Suction Tubing & Yankauer
    • ETCO2 or CO2 detector
    • Stethoscope
    • Bag-valve mask

    Ask the Provider which size ET tube they’ll want, which is often 7.0 for females, and 8.0 for males.

    The stylet will need to be placed inside the ET tube, which is usually cuffed. This will be removed once the Provider gets the tube in the right spot.

    Administer Medications

    The Provider will give you a verbal order for which sedative(s) and paralytic they want.

    Verbally clarify the name and dose, and begin to draw up the medications. You may need to grab these medications from an “RSI kit” in the Accudose, or they may be located in your code cart.

    Usually one of the nurses will assume the “medicine” responsibility while the others are preparing the patient and equipment.

    Some medications will require reconstitution. This means you may need to mix saline with powdered medication to make a solution. Verify the final doses/amounts with another nurse.

    Make sure to accurately label each, so you don’t mix up the sedative and the paralytic!

    Once everyone is ready for the intubation, wait for the Provider’s verbal “ok” to give the medications, and administer the medications as above. Most are given quickly over 5-10 seconds. 

    First the sedative, then once the patient has decreased LOC and you get the next verbal OK from the Provider, administer the paralytic.

    RT should be bagging the patient at this time until the Provider is ready for the intubation. This is usually within 30-60 seconds after administering the paralytic.

    The Intubation

    Your main job is now done, and now you just watch the intubation procedure and monitor the patient, following any verbal orders that are given.

    The Provider will place the ET tube between the vocal cords, typically 21cm deep in women and 23cm in men. This is measured at the teeth.

    Verify Placement

    Immediately after intubation, the tube needs to be verified. This is verified in multiple ways.

    First, a CO2 detector may be attached to the ET tube. Observing color change from purple to yellow indicates CO2.

    If the patient is hooked up to an ETCO2, with each BVM breath, you should see normal CO2 levels near 35-45 mmHg.

    Additionally, someone should listen to all breath sounds listening for equal breath sounds.

    Lastly, the patient should have a portable CXR ordered to verify the placement. The radiologist may recommend pulling out or pushing deeper x amount of cm.

    Maintain Vent + Sedation

    Now the patient is successfully intubated. Your main job now is keeping the patient sedated so that the Ventilator can do its job and breath for the patient.

    This usually involves a continuous titratable drip, often propofol. The patient may also require additional sedatives, analgesics, and sometimes further paralytics.

    Of course, make sure to chart everything and continue to monitor the patient’s vital signs.

    If in the ER or Med-Surg, your goal should be to get that patient admitted/transferred ASAP.

    RSI Intubation Complications

    Unfortunately, not all RSI intubations go smoothly. These are usually emergent procedures and are not done in a controlled environment. 

    As the nurse, you are the first one who is going to notice any complications while monitoring your patient.  It’s important to know what to look out for and how these complications are managed.

    Esophageal Intubation

    This is when the ET tube is in the esophagus instead of the trachea. This becomes obvious when verifying placement.

    When it occurs, the ET tube will be completely removed and the Provider will re-insert the tube with another attempt.

    Gastric Tube

    An OG or NG to suction should be placed in all patients after intubation to decompress the stomach to prevent emesis and to decrease intrathoracic pressure.

    A foley should also be placed.

    Right Mainstem Intubation

    If the ET tube is placed slightly too deep, it will often go into the Right Mainstem Bronchus of the right lung. This is because it is more vertical than the left.

    If left, the patient may have signs of hypoxemia and worsening respiratory status, and if not fixed can cause barotrauma, pneumothorax, and hemothorax.

    Breath sounds should be equal throughout the lobes, but a CXR will need to be done to verify this isn’t the case. 

    Treatment involves pulling out the ET tube per radiologists recommendations, which the Provider should do.


    A traumatic insertion can cause perforation of the esophagus or trachea. This is very rare, but severe.

    Signs include presence of subcutaneous emphysema in the mediastinum, and worsening respiratory status.

    A CXR may show pneumomediastinum, subcutaneous emphysema, and possible pneumothorax.

    RSI Intubation is common in the ER and ICU, but can still be nerve-wracking and should cause an adrenaline rush! Equipping yourself with knowledge and familiarity is the best thing you can do to become comfortable during this procedure!


    Bookatz A., & Sakles, J. C. (2021). Rapid sequence intubation. In B. Simpson (Ed.),

    Brown, C. A., & Sakles, J. C. (2022). Rapid sequence intubation for adults outside the operating room. In T. W. Post (Ed.), Uptodate

    Caro, D. (2022). Induction agents for rapid sequence intubation in adults outside the operating room. In T. W. Post (Ed.), Uptodate

    Caro, D. (2022). Neuromuscular blocking agents (NMBAs) for rapid sequence intubation in adults outside of the operating room. In T. W. Post (Ed.), Uptodate

    Morgan, M. A. (n.d.). Esophageal intubation. In Radiopaedia

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      I&D: How to perform an Incision & Drainage

      I&D: How to perform an Incision & Drainage

      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C
      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C

      Author | Nurse Practitioner


      An I&D or Incision and Drainage is a procedure that is done to treat infections that have turned into abscesses.

      Knowing how to perform an I&D is important for a nurse practitioner in most settings, but especially in the ER or Urgent Care.

      Learn how to do an I&D (Incision and drainage) including step-by-step instructions how to drain an abscess, antibiotic selection, whether or not to pack the abscess, and discharge instructions

      What is an I&D?

      An I&D or Incision and Drainage is performed when there is an accumulation of fluid within the body that needs to be drained.

      This is usually from a skin abscess.

      An I&D is performed in urgent cares, emergency departments, or in outpatient clinics like general surgery.

      Patients with an abscess will usually complain of pain, welling, and redness of the affected area.

      Abscesses can occur anywhere on the body, but commonly occur:

      • In the axillae (armpits)
      • On the upper legs and buttock
      • Pilonidal region (above the buttcrack)
      • On fingertips next to nail (termed paronychia)

      While anyone can get an abscess, these are more common in those with poor hygiene, as well as those who are immunocompromised.

      Diabetics and patients who are obese are also at risk for abscess formation.

      When To Do an I&D?

      An I&D is performed to drain purulent fluid (pus) from the body.

      These collections of pus are termed “abscesses”, and draining them is the best way to treat the infection, as well as preventing the abscess from getting bigger and causing a more serious infection.

      If there is no fluctuance palpated (fluid felt underneath the skin), then a trial of PO antibiotics can likely be used without having to do an I&D.

      Most cases of obvious abscesses will benefit from an I&D.

      There are certain abscesses that require the expertise of a surgeon to drain. These include:

      • Perirectal or perianal abscesses
      • Anterior and lateral neck abscesses
      • Hand abscesses (except paronychia)
      • Abscesses adjacent to vital nerves or blood vessels
      • Abscesses in the center of the face
      • Breast abscesses near the areola and nipple

      It is also best for abscesses >5cm to be drained and managed by a surgeon.

      I&D and ANTBIOTICS

      While antibiotics can help for skin infections like cellulitis, they often won’t be able to fully treat an infection if an abscess is there.

      This is why an I&D is necessary.

      Young, healthy patients who are not immunocompromised do not need antibiotics if an I&D is performed on a small abscess < 2cm.

      Most others will require systemic antibiotics including:

      • Deep abscesses like in the abdomen
      • Multiple abscesses
      • Significant surrounding cellulitis
      • >2cm in size

      However, these antibiotics likely won’t work without also performing an I&D!

      Which Antibiotics?

      Like skin infections, most abscesses are caused by staphylococcus aureus and other gram-positive bacteria.

      However, MRSA is very common, especially with abscess formation. This means that standard antibiotics for cellulitis like Keflex may not work.

      Antibiotic selection should cover MRSA

      MRSA-covering PO agents include:

      • Bactrim 1-2 tabs BID x 10 days
      • Doxycycline 100mg BID x 10 days
      • Minocycline 100mg BID x 10 days
      • Clindamycin 300mg q6-8h x 10 days
      • Linezolid 600mg BID x 10 days (expensive)

      Perirectal abscesses that are drained will need additional coverage for gram-negative bacilli and anaerobes, so options include:

      • Add Augmentin to the MRSA-covering agents above
      • Add Levaquin AND Flagyl to the MRSA-covering agents above
      • Add Cipro to Clindamycin

      Severe infections and abscesses that require inpatient admission would be started on IV Vancomycin +/- Cipro/Flagyl or Zosyn.

      Aerobic and anaerobic cultures should be obtained and sent to the lab to guide antibiotic use.

      Patients at risk of bacterial endocarditis should be started on antibiotic prophylaxis. These should be given 1 hour prior to the I&D.

      Bacterial Endocarditis Prophylaxis

      Antibiotic prophylaxis is given to certain people at risk for developing bacterial endocarditis. These oral antibiotics should be given 1 hour prior to the I&D.

      Antibiotic prophylaxis should be given for patients with:

      • Prosthetic heart valves
      • Rheumatic heart disease
      • Unrepaired congenital heart disease
      • H/o infective endocarditis
      • Central lines

      Antibiotic prophylaxis for bacterial endocarditis include:

      • Bactrim
      • Doxycycline and amoxicillin
      • Minocycline and amoxicillin
      • Clindamycin


      1. Collect your Equipment

      An I&D is an invasive procedure and will require some equipment.

      An I&D is also considered a clean procedure, so you do not need sterile gloves or a sterile field, although some do still utilize sterile technique.

      Your facilities may have kits put together which contain much of what you need for the I&D.

      I&D Equipment

      I&D KitPPE
      • Scalpel (#11)
      • Betadine or CHG
      • 4×4 Gauze
      • Curved hemostats
      • Scissors
      • Clean or Sterile Gloves
      • Gown
      • Face shield (trust me)
      • 1-2% Lidocaine
      • 3-5 cc syringe
      • Blunt needle
      • 25-30g needle
      • 1-2% Lidocaine
      • 3-5 cc syringe
      • Blunt needle
      • 25-30g needle
      PACKING & DRESSINGCulture Swabs
      • Iodoform or plain gauze packing tape
      • ABD pad and gauze
      • Tape
      • Aerobic swab
      • Anaerobic swab

      3. Anesthetize

      Before you make the incision, you should anesthetize the area you are going to cut.

      Abscesses are already irritated and will be very painful.

      Unfortunately, lidocaine doesn’t work as well as usual because abscesses are an acidic environment.

      Draw up your 1-2% lidocaine into your 3cc syringe with a blunt needle.

      Switch out to the smaller gauge needle (25-30g) and prime the lidocaine. You are now ready to infiltrate.

      You have a few options when it comes to HOW you are going to anesthetize the area.

      Linear Block

      For smaller abscesses <5cm, locally infiltrate the lidocaine in a line where the incision will be, across the entire length of the abscess. This will be painful for the patient.

      Incisions should be made along the lines of the body that have decreased tension to reduce scarring.

      Local infiltration involves sticking the needle just underneath the epidermis, and injecting a small amount of lidocaine while you gently pull the needle back out.

      You are infiltrating the subcutaneous tissue, but not deep enough to actually inject into the abscess itself.

      This is done multiple times until the projected line where you will cut is fully infiltrated.

      After 3-5 minutes, you can begin the incision.

      Field Block

      For larger abscesses >5cm, the linear approach above should be used, IN ADDITION to a ring or field block.

      A field block is achieved by injecting a ring of subcutaneous 1% lidocaine around the abscess, approximately 1cm peripheral to the erythematous border.

      Remember the max dose of lidocaine is 4.5mg/kg
      (max 300mg)

      This means for lidocaine 1% (10mg/mL) the max dose would be 30mL in most adults over 65kg – you hopefully should not be using anywhere near this amount.

      Lidocaine should start working in 45-90 seconds, but you should give it 3-7 minutes to fully kick with an abscess.

      Tips to Decrease pain with lidocaine

      • Buffer the lidocaine with 9:1 ratio (lidocaine to 8.4% bicarb)
      • Use a smaller needle
      • Inject slowly
      • Use room temperature lidocaine
      • Stimulate adjacent skin
      • Ring block/field block technique as above

      4. Make the Incision

      Once you have given enough time for the lidocaine to work (3-5 minutes), make a linear incision with the scalpel.

      This needs to be deep enough to penetrate the abscess wall, but not too deep to cause injury.

      It helps if you have 4×4 gauze in the other hand, as purulent fluid will usually immediately start gushing out.

      Cut the entire length of the abscess, as not making a wide enough incision is one of the main causes of a recurrent abscess.

      5. Obtain Cultures

      Young healthy patients with small abscesses <2cm who won’t get antibiotics don’t need cultures obtained.

      Patients started on antibiotics should have cultures obtained if:

      • Significant cellulitis
      • Systemic symptoms like fevers
      • History of recurrent abscesses
      • Failure of initial antibiotics
      • Very young or old
      • Immunocompromised

      Make sure to obtain swabs for both aerobic and anaerobic gram stain and culture.

      6. Loculations & Irrigation

      Abscesses have a tendency to become loculated. This means there can be individual pockets of pus within the abscess itself.

      To “break these up”, insert a hemostat into the incision and open it up in all directions in order to break up any possible loculations. This is often painful.

      Draw up sterile saline with the 20-60cc syringe, attach the splash guard or IV catheter, and irrigate the incision to effectively clean out the abscess.

      This is best practice although not always performed, especially for smaller abscesses.

      7. Pack wound (optional)

      I&D incisions are almost never closed with sutures but are left open to heal by “secondary intention”, meaning naturally.

      Sometimes packing should be used.

      Packing is when you insert special gauze into the wound that promotes drainage.

      Packing is generally recommended for:

      • Abscesses >5cm
      • Pilonidal abscesses
      • Immunocompromised / diabetics

      If you decide to pack the wound, do not over-pack the wound too tightly. This increased pressure can cause tissue damage.

      Gently insert the iodoform ribbon into the wound with a blunt object such as a cutip swab. This does not have to “stuff” the wound. Leave a 1cm tail outside of the wound.

      Cover the packing with an absorbable dressing.

      Patients with packing will need to return for a wound check-in 2 days. If there is still significant drainage, more packing can be placed.

      Discharge Instructions

      Before discharge, make sure their tetanus is uptodate.

      I&D without packing should soak in warm soapy water 2-3 times per day, and f/u in 7-10 days or sooner if systemic signs of infection present.

      I&D with packing should return in 24-48 hours. Once packing is removed and the drainage stops, warm soapy soaks can be started.


      Approach to management of drainable abscess or skin infection with purulent drainage in adults. (2021). UpToDate. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from
      Graphic 114919 Version 10.0

      Buttaravoli, P. M., & Leffler, S. M. (2012). Cutaneous Abscess or Pustule. In Minor emergencies (3rd ed., pp. 655-659). Saunders.

      Downey, K. A., & Becker, T. (2021). Techniques for skin abscess drainage. In T. W. Post (Ed.), UpToDate.

      Sexton, D. J., & Chu, V. H. (2021). Antimicrobial prophylaxis for the prevention of bacterial endocarditis. In T. W. Post (Ed.), UpToDate


      How to Read an EKG Rhythm Strip

      How to Read an EKG Rhythm Strip

      This post may contain affiliate links, which means I get a commission if you decide to purchase through my links, at no cost to you. Please read affiliate disclosure for more information


      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C
      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C

      Author | Nurse Practitioner

      Learning how to read an EKG rhythm strip is an essential skill for nurses!

      This skill becomes especially handy for nurses on Med-Surg, Telemetry, the Emergency Department, or Critical Care units.

      If reading an EKG rhythm strip is new to you – this is the perfect place to start!

      How to read an EKG Rhythm Strip - FB Share

      What is a Rhythm Strip?

      An EKG or ECG stands for Electrocardiography, which is the electrical activity of the heart traced on paper (or a monitor).

      A rhythm strip is at least a 6-second tracing printed out on graph paper which shows activity from one or two leads.

      Leads are “views” of the heart. There are 12 leads that are traditionally obtained with a 12-lead EKG, but most portable and bedside monitors only monitor 3-5 leads at a time.

      Luckily – interpreting a single rhythm strip is much easier than a 12-lead EKG. Most rhythm strips are interpreted from Lead II as this gives a great view of the heart.

      The goal of reading an EKG rhythm strip is to determine the rate and rhythm of the patient. This is great for identifying baseline cardiac rhythm as well as any arrhythmias or ectopy that may occur (like a premature beat).

      A 12-lead EKG also looks at the rate and rhythm, but additionally gives nearly a complete 360° view of the heart.

      This means it can be used to assess for things like cardiac ischemia or infarction, conduction delays, and even enlarged chamber size.

      The ECG Rhythm Strip Tracing

      As I said earlier – an ECG Rhythm tracing is the electrical activity of the heart recorded on paper or a monitor.

      This is traditionally printed out on a 6-second strip. This can make it easy to determine the rate of an irregular rhythm if it is not given to you (count the complexes and multiply by 10).

      Thick black lines are printed every 3 seconds, so the distance between 3 black lines is equal to 6 seconds.

      As you can see, a printed ECG rhythm strip is comprised of boxes – both small boxes and large boxes. 5 small boxes make up one large box.

      Each small box is 1mm wide, signifying 0.04 seconds or 40 milliseconds (ms).

      Each large box is 5 small boxes, signifying 0.20 seconds or 200ms.

      This becomes important to remember when determining the rate of regular rhythms. The boxes and lines are also important in recognizing whether a rhythm is regular or irregular.

      The PQRST

      Okay so that covers the paper, but what about the actual tracings? That’s where the alphabet comes into play. By alphabet – I mean PQRST.

      An electrical tracing of the heart is made up of waves, lines, complexes, and intervals, and each of these represents specific conduction within the heart. This is the key to interpreting a rhythm strip.

      P WAVES

      P waves represent atrial depolarization. This means that the electrical signal that starts in the SA node (the normal pacemaker of the heart) is traveling through both atria (top chambers of the heart) during the P wave.

      A P wave should look smooth and upright in most leads including lead II.

      The 3 things you’ll want to specifically look for in P waves in a rhythm strip are:

      • Are there P waves before each QRS complex?
      • Are there any P waves that do not have a QRS complex that follows?
      • Do all the P waves look the same / have the same shape?

      Keeping these 3 questions in mind will help you determine where the rhythm originates from (i.e. the sinus node), if there are any potential extra beats, or if there could be certain heart blocks present.

      An inverted P wave means there is anterograde conduction to the atria (backwards direction). This means the electrical impulse originates from near, at, or below the AV node. Examples of this include Junctional rhythm, certain PACs, and PJCs.


      The QRS complex represents ventricular depolarization. This means that the electrical signal is traveling through both ventricles (the bottom chambers of the heart). In a healthy heart – this should correlate with the pulse.

      The QRS complex is actually made up of 1-3 waves, the Q wave, the R wave, and the S wave. Depending on which lead you look at and the specific heart, any combination of these waves may be present.

      In lead II, usually all three waves are present. This includes an initial downward deflection (Q wave), an upward deflection (R wave), followed by a downward deflection (S wave).

      The presence of a QRS complex indicates that the ventricles are receiving the electrical signal. These should follow shortly after a P wave in a sinus rhythm.

      The main abnormality that can occur is a wide QRS complex. This either means that there is aberrant conduction (like a bundle branch block), or that the electrical signal starts in either the left or right ventricle (i.e. a PVC or Ventricular Tachycardia).

      A bundle branch block just means there is a delay in the conduction tissue transmitting the signal to either the right or left ventricle. If the widened QRS is preceded by a P wave, it is probably a sinus rhythm with a BBB.

      If there is no preceding P wave, you may have a PVC or even VTACH if it is sustained.

      T WAVES

      The T wave represents ventricular repolarization. This means that the myocardial cells within the ventricles are recovering and “getting ready for the next beat”.

      This should be smooth and upright in most leads, including lead II.

      Sometimes, the T wave can be inverted or flipped. This is nonspecific but can indicate cardiac ischemia or infarction, especially if it is in at least 2 contiguous leads (pertaining to the same anatomical area of the heart).

      People may have flipped waves in certain leads at baseline after a heart attack, with a bundle branch block, or with a PVC, VTACH, or ventricular paced rhythms.

      Tall or tented T waves are those that are > 1 large box in lead II and may be particularly pointed. This could be normal for the patient, but can also indicate hyperkalemia (high potassium).


      The PR interval is from the beginning of the P wave to the beginning of the QRS complex. This represents the time it takes for the electrical signal to reach the ventricles from the SA node.

      This should be 3-5 small boxes or 120-200ms. If longer, this is considered a first degree AV block.

      A short PR interval could be from a a PAC, a junctional rhythm (associated with an inverted P wave), or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.


      The QT interval is the time between the start of the QRS complex to the end of the T wave. This will change depending on the heart rate, so a QTc (QT corrected) is calculated.

      This should be 350-440ms in men, and 350-460ms in women. A QT interval >500ms predisposes the patient to deadly ventricular arrhythmias such as Torsades de Pointes.

      QT prolongation can be caused by ischemia, electrolyte abnormalities, or from medications such as psych medications, Zofran, Azithromycin, Cipro, etc.

      While you can calculate the QT interval from a single strip, a 12-lead EKG should be obtained and it will be listed on the EKG for you. Otherwise, there are online calculators which can be used to determine the corrected QT interval for the heart rate.

      Arrhythmias on the ECG Rhythm Strip

      An arrhythmia is any abnormal rhythm other than normal sinus rhythm – the baseline rhythm of the heart. This can be a benign variant (like sinus arrhythmia), or it could be deadly (like ventricular fibrillation).

      In order to know how to read an EKG rhythm strip, you need to first be able to understand what normal sinus rhythm (NSR) looks like.

      You should be comparing every rhythm strip to NSR. Recognizing where the rhythm differs from NSR will help you identify the rhythm.

      Normal Sinus Rhythm (NSR)

      Normal sinus rhythm is the gold standard. This is what a normal functioning heart beat should look like.

      The “sinus” in the name indicates that the electrical signal is coming from the Sinoatrial node (SA node), the “normal” pacemaker of the heart.

      The presence of sinus rhythm means the cardiac conduction system is functioning appropriately (although certain blocks may still be present).

      The rate of NSR is 60-100 bpm.  Slower is sinus bradycardia, and faster is sinus tachycardia. This just means that the heart is functioning at altered rates, possibly due to sleep, medications, infection, exercise, etc.

      All sinus rhythms should be regular, meaning each of the QRS complexes are mapping out.

      You can do this by measuring the R-R interval between any two beats, and then making sure the R-R interval stays constant throughout the strip. Some people use calipers, but I recommend a good old-fashioned alcohol pad or piece of paper and a pen.

      Additionally, a P wave should precede each QRS complex.

      The QRS complex should be narrow unless there is a bundle branch block present.

      The ECG Rhythm Strip Interpretation

      To read an EKG rhythm strip, you should do so in a systematic way, so that you don’t miss anything.

      1. Is the rhythm regular? Is every R-R interval equal?
      2. What’s the rate? This is usually printed for you
      3. P wave: Are there P waves before every QRS?
      4. PR interval: Is it wide >200ms?
      5. QRS: Is the QRS narrow or wide (>100-120ms)?
      6. T waves: Are the T waves upright and normal-appearing?

      Using this systematic approach should help you interpret what each rhythm is. But you need to be familiar with most of the arrhythmias out there.

      Systematic approach to reading a rhythm strip

      Other Sinus Rhythms

      Other sinus rhythms are rhythms that may still “normal”. I include paced rhythms in this section as this replaces NSR once a pacemaker is placed.

      Sinus Bradycardia (SB)

      Sinus bradycardia is the same as NSR, but the HR is <60bpm.

      This can be normal for well-conditioned individuals like athletes, can be normal if the patient is on a beta-blocker or similar medication, and can also be normal while sleeping.

      The most important thing when the patient has SB is

      1. Is it new or severe (<40bpm or so)
      2. Are they symptomatic? (dizziness, lightheadedness, syncope, SOB, chest pain, etc)

      Since this is often a normal variant – if the patient is asymptomatic there’s usually nothing that needs to be done.

      Make sure a slow HR is actually SB and not a heart block!

      Sinus Tachycardia (ST)

      Sinus tachycardia is the same as NSR, but the HR is >100bpm and usually <150bpm, at least while at rest.

      This can often be seen with exercise, but ST at rest often indicates anxiety, certain drugs, sepsis, dehydration, or volume loss. ST is usually a response to an underlying cause within the body.

      You never treat the ST, but rather treat the underlying issue (i.e. give fluids with volume depletion).

      Paced Rhythm

      Paced rhythms will look different depending on the location of the leads. If the lead is in the right atria, the rhythm will appear like NSR but with a pacer spike before the P wave.

      If the lead is in the right ventricle, it will look like a slow VTACH with a pacer spike before the QRS. There can also be both of these at the same time.

      Some monitors only show the pacer spike if you turn that function on – if you see a very slow VT – ask the patient if they have a pacemaker and adjust the monitors appropriately.

      Other Cardiac Arrhythmias

      Heart Blocks

      Heart blocks are when there is significant delay or blockage in transmitting the signal from the atria to the ventricles. This is usually associated with a junctional or ventricular escape rhythm.

      First degree AV block is generally “no big deal” and common in older age and with beta-blockers. The PR interval is consistently >200ms.

      Second degree type 1 AV block or Wenckebach, is when there is a progressive lengthening of the PR interval which eventually leads to a dropped QRS complex.

      Second degree type 2 AV block or Mobitz II is when there is a consistent PR interval but QRS complexes are randomly dropped.

      Third degree AV block or complete heart block is when there is complete dissociation of the atria and the ventricles.

      Atrial Fibrillation (AF)

      Atrial Fibrillation is a very common type of arrhythmia that you will definitely run into in the hospital. AF could be new-onset, RVR (rapid ventricular response), could be intermittent (paroxysmal), or chronic/persistent.

      AF is an irregularly irregular rhythm, meaning that there is no rhyme or reason for the regularity of each QRS complex.

      This is usually from a structurally diseased heart where both atria are quivering rapidly, termed fibrillation. This leads to fast ventricular rates (AF RVR), as well as poor blood flow through the atria – predisposing the patient to blood clots.

      This is why these patients are started on rate-control medications such as metoprolol or Cardizem, and usually anticoagulants like heparin, Eliquis, etc.

      AF will not have p waves but instead, have a fibrillatory baseline. The QRS complexes will usually be narrow, and will not map out with each other in any way.

      Rates >100bpm are considered AF RVR.

      Atrial Flutter

      Atrial Flutter (Aflutter) is similar to Atrial fibrillation and is treated largely the same.

      This is when the atria aren’t fibrillating but rather “fluttering”. This is usually from a reentrant loop near the AV node.

      This will usually lead to a conduction ratio of 2:1, and a HR around 150bpm. Conduction ratios can be 3:1 (100bpm), 4:1 (75bpm) and variable as well.

      You will see saw-tooth P waves termed “f waves”. Depending on the conduction ratio, you will see 2 (3 or 4) F waves per QRS complex. Aflutter is usually regular.

      Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT)

      Supraventricular Tachycardia is an umbrella term referring to any fast tachycardia that originates above the ventricles. However, in clinical terms, this usually refers to AV Nodal Reentrant Tachycardia (AVNRT).

      This occurs when there is an abnormal pathway of conduction tissue near/within the AV node, termed a “reentrant loop”.

      If a PAC or PVC comes at the wrong time, this can send the electrical signal around and around this loop of conduction tissue, leading to very fast heart rates.

      SVT can be as “slow” as 140bpm to as fast as 220bpm. The faster the heart rate, the more symptomatic the patient usually is.

      In SVT, P waves are usually not present, there is usually ST depression, and the rhythm is regular with narrow QRS complexes.

      Treatment for this involves vagal maneuvers and often adenosine or Cardizem.

      Ventricular Tachycardia (VTACH or VT)

      Ventricular Tachycardia is a fast tachyarrhythmia originating within the ventricles. This leads to very fast heart rates with or without a perfusing rhythm.

      This means the patient may not have a pulse and may be a code blue. Either way, VT is a very serious arrhythmia.

      VT is usually caused by Coronary heart disease, like a previous or current MI.

      The rhythm is regular, and the rate is anywhere from 100-330bpm, and the QRS complex is wide (>140ms).

      P waves are usually absent or undetectable, but 60% of cases can have AV dissociation present.

      If there is no pulse, you use ACLS cardiac arrest algorithm.

      If there is a pulse, you utilize the ACLS Adult tachycardia with a pulse algorithm.

      Ventricular Fibrillation (VF or VFIB)

      Ventricular Fibrillation is a deadly ventricular arrhythmia. There will not be a pulse, and the patient will be coding.

      VF is a similar concept as AF, except the ventricles are the ones fibrillating. Coronary artery disease is again one of the main causes of VF. Severe electrolyte abnormalities can also cause VF.

      VF is irregular and has no pattern. There is either coarse or fine fibrillation, eventually degenerating into asystole if not shocked back into a normal rhythm.

      These patients need fast defibrillation, high-quality CPR, Epinephrine, antiarrhythmics, etc (Code blue algorithm).


      Asystole is the absence of cardiac activity. This is essentially a straight wavy line but may have occasional p waves initially. The patient is dead. Follow ACLS algorithms as above.

      Pulseless Electrical Activity (PEA)

      PEA appears like a normal rhythm (Usually NSR or SB), but there is no actual mechanical contraction (no pulse). The patient will be unresponsive, pulseless, and this is a code blue as well (follow ACLS).

      Want to learn more?

      Hopefully this gave you a good idea about how to read an EKG rhythm strip. Unfortunately, I couldn’t include every single arrhythmia or detail, but this definitely should give you a good understanding of the basics!

      If you want to learn more, I have a complete video course “ECG Rhythm Master”, made specifically for nurses which goes into so much more depth and detail.

      With this course you will be able to:

      • Identify all cardiac rhythms inside and out
      • Understand the pathophysiology of why and how arrhythmias occur
      • Learn how to manage arrhythmias like an expert nurse
      • Become proficient with emergency procedures like transcutaneous pacing, defibrillation, synchronized shock, and more!

      I also include some great free bonuses with the course, including:

      • ECG Rhythm Guide eBook (190 pages!)
      • Code Cart Med Guide (code cart medication guide)
      • Code STEMI (recognizing STEMI on an EKG)

      You can use the code “SPRING2021” for a limited time 15% discount, exclusive to my readers!

      Check out more about the course here!

      You may also like:

      Heart Blocks EKG Rhythm Infographic
      How to read an EKG Rhythm Strip - Pin Share

      How to Start an IV

      How to Start an IV

      This post may contain affiliate links, which means I get a commission if you decide to purchase through my links, at no cost to you. Please read affiliate disclosure for more information


      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C
      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C

      Author | Nurse Practitioner

      Learning how to start an IV is a very important skill that every nurse needs to know. Inpatient and ER nurses deal with IVs every day – whether they are inserting them, removing them, or administering fluids or medications through them. If you are new to nursing, then you will need to learn how to insert an IV with confidence and knowledge!

      How to start an IV: Feat

      When to Start an IV?

      The short answer to this is “when an IV is ordered”. However, it is important to critically think as a nurse, and anticipate what will need to be done. Especially as an ER nurse, you may see your patient before the Provider and can start placing an IV if indicated.

      If you work as an inpatient nurse, most patients should have at least an IV, midlines, PICC lines, or other central access. These IVs often go bad, and you will need to know how to start an IV in these settings as well.

      Indications for an IV:

      • IV fluids or medications – this is the usual reason
      • Diagnostic Imaging – CTs or MRIs often require an IV for IV contrast to help visualize the anatomy and any potential pathology
      • Inpatient Admission – usually required unless refusal


      There is no outright contraindication to placing an IV, but certain factors will exclude specific locations. These include extremities with:

      • AV Fistulas or grafts (dialysis patients)
      • Previous mastectomy or lymph node dissection
      • Blood clots
      • Significant burns or edema
      • Overlying infection (cellulitis)

      It may be best to avoid limbs with significant motor or sensory deficits, as there is unclear evidence that may suggest increased DVT in these extremities. If their arm is numb, they also may not feel when it is infiltrated.

      Which IV Gauge to Choose?

      The IV gauge will determine how big the actual needle and catheter are. The bigger the IV – the faster fluid can be administered. Unfortunately, bigger sizes are also more painful and usually more difficult to insert. Bigger IVs also come with an increased risk of phlebitis and can cause some serious irritation to the vein.

      24 gauge: The Baby Needle

      These are typically used for babies and generally should be avoided in adults. They are very short, flimsy, and won’t last long.

      • Good for: Infants
      • Bad for: Most other scenarios

      22 gauge: The Safe Choice

      This is used for many kids and adults, especially older adults with fragile “easily-blown” veins. These are usually OK for IV contrast dye as well, but not for CTA. These are also generally easier to place.

      • Good for: Peds, many Med-Surg adult patients, easily blown veins
      • OK for: IV contrast, blood return
      • Bad for: Massive trauma or fluid resuscitation needs, CT Angiography

      20 gauge: The One-Size-Fits-All

      20g IVs are an ER nurse’s best friend. This is because a 20g IV is adequate for multiple fluid boluses, IV medication infusions, and most CTA requirements. They often give great blood return and labs can often be drawn without hemolysis.

      • Good for: Most adult patients, CT Angiography
      • OK for: Emergency situations (code blues, RRTs)
      • Bad for: Massive trauma or fluid resuscitation needs

      18 gauge: The Big Daddy

      18g IVs are your standard “large bore” IV. These are great in critical situations as they provide for rapid administration of fluids or blood products, rapid infusion of critical medications. The down-side is they tend to be a little more difficult to place in the absence of large veins.

      • Good for: Critical or emergency situations, rapid fluid administration, CTA, severe sepsis, burns, acute MI, etc
      • Bad for: Small, fragile veins

      14-16g: The Monsters

      The 16g and 14g IVs are very large, and unnecessary for most indications. However, in critical situations these may serve you well.

      • Good for: Rapid fluid resuscitation or critical situations as above
      • Bad for: Small veins – Unnecessary for most indications

      Also Check out: “10 IV Insertion Tips for Nurses”


      Some nurses may tell you to place the largest IV catheter that the vein can support. However, this is contrary to good nursing judgment. If you ask my friend Brian (@TheIVGuy), he will tell you that you should choose your size based on the appropriate ordered therapy and anticipated needs. This means that for most patients, a 20-22 gauge is likely the best and safest choice.

      An Overview of the different IV gauges and which scenarios they can be used for! #ER #IV #Nursing

      What Equipment do you Need to Start an IV?

      Before learning how to start an IV, you need to first know which equipment you will need. This becomes like second nature, but when starting out as a new nurse, this is often important to memorize. For an IV insertion, you will need:

      • IV Insertion Kit, which usually includes:
        • Chlorhexidine / ETOH swab
        • Tegaderm dressing +/- securement device
        • 2×2 gauze
        • Tourniquet
      • IV catheter of choice (18-22g)
      • Blood transfer device (Vacutainer) – if drawing blood
      • Extension Loop or cap
      • 1-2 10cc flush
      • Tape

      Once you have your equipment, you are ready to know how to start an IV.


      1. Prepare the Patient

      To start an IV, you will first want to wash your hands (always the right starting point). You will also want to use universal precautions, so put on a pair of clean gloves as you will be possibly interacting with the patient’s blood.

      You should already have an idea of where you are going to place the IV and which size IV catheter you are going to use.

      When starting an IV, place the tourniquet above the area where you plan on cannulating #StartanIVPlace the tourniquet on the patient’s arm proximal to the area of cannulation. Look for straight, large veins. Palpate them as veins may not always be visible but can still be felt. Strong veins will have a good amount of bounce to them.

      Once you are happy with your vein selection, you can start prepping your area. Use a chlorhexidine (CHG) or alcohol swab to gently clean the surrounding area for 30 seconds, and allow to completely dry. Start with the center and move outward in a circular fashion with alcohol, while CHG requires a back and forth scrubbing action.

      With deeper non-visible veins, some nurses will also apply alcohol to a finger of their non-dominant hand to help palpate during the procedure without “contaminating” the site.

      Please note that this is not the best practice for infection control. You should never tear off the finger of your glove either, instead – learn to palpate with your gloves on.

      2. Prepare the IV Kit

      While your site is drying, open your 10cc flush and your extension loop and/or cap.

      If you are drawing blood, hook up the blood transfer device to the dry extension loop or cap. Otherwise, you can connect the flush and prime the loop or cap. Set this aside back into your kit to keep it clean.

      Open up your IV, take off the needle cap, and twist the end of the catheter to make sure it is loose and ready for cannulation.

      3. Insert the IV

      Holding the skin taut will help you stabilize the veins when you start an IVHold the skin taut with your non-dominant hand to secure the vein. This helps to stabilize the vein and prevent it from rolling. Place the tip of the needle against the skin at a 10-30 degree angle.

      When you start an IV, make sure to approach the vein at a 10 to 30 degree angle

      If the vein is deeper, use a slightly more angular approach initially. With the bevel up, puncture the skin and advance through to the vein.

      If done correctly, you should see a flashback of blood in the flash chamber and/or catheter. This location will depend on the brand and size of the specific IV catheter. Once a flashback is seen, lower the angle even more parallel with the skin, and advance the whole unit about 2-6mm.

      When you start an IV, once you enter the vein you should see a flash of blood

      Now advance only the catheter forward, sliding it off of the needle and cannulating the vein. If done correctly, the catheter should easily slip into the vein without resistance. If there is dimpling of the skin, the IV is likely within the extravascular space.

      Once blood flash is seen and you insert the needle an additional 2-6mm, then advance only the catheter

      Before pressing the activation button to retract the needle – take off the tourniquet and apply digital pressure beyond the catheter tip.

      Many IV catheters will bleed if you do not place pressure over the catheter

      Some brands will have a septum or shield function with gauges 20-24, which prevents the backflow of blood and negates the need for venous compression. Press your activation button to retract the needle.


      If you initially don’t see flash of blood, pull the needle and catheter both out almost completely (but do not leave the epidermis). Re-palpate the vein, adjust your angle and advance again. This is termed “digging” and some patients will not tolerate this well. However, oftentimes it may only take 2 or 3 “digs” until success.

      Draw Blood

      If ordered, now is the point where you will draw your blood. Hook up your loop/cap with the blood transfer device to the IV hub.

      Draw your blood tubes, and flush with a 10cc pulse flush afterward.

      If blood is ordered, you can immediately draw this after placing a new IV

      If you are not drawing blood, skip this step and instead just connect the primed cap or extension loop to the IV and flush.

      After flushing a few mLs, make sure you can pull back blood return. This is reassurance that the IV is in the correct place. Then pulse flush the remaining amount through.


      Clinical Tip: Blue Tops for coags (PT/PTT) are often drawn first, and it is necessary to fill these tubes up completely for the lab to run the tests. If you have an extension loop, that .5-1cc in the loop can unfortunately cause the tube not to be full enough and you will need to redraw it. Best practice is to waste a tube first.

      Secure the IV

      Secure the IV with a securement device or tape, and a dressing like Tegaderm. Make sure the insertion site is covered. If you used an extension loop, secure the loop with tape as this can easily get caught on something and pull out the IV.

      If the patient is confused or may try pulling the IV out, wrap the IV with Coban, only leaving the cap accessible.

      Administer any medications or fluids through the IV as ordered.

      These are the steps you need to know how to start an IV #StartanIV #IVstart #IV #Nursing

      How to Remove an IV

      If the patient is discharged or if there is a compilation with the IV, it will need to be removed. Removing the IV is easier, and can be performed by a nurse or a patient care assistant.

      1. Collect 2×2 gauze and tape or bandaid

      2. Wash your hands and don clean gloves

      3. While holding the catheter in place, start peeling off the Tegaderm and/or tape. Use an alcohol pad if very sticky and painful.

      4. Once the dressing is no longer secured to the skin, place a 2×2 gauze over the insertion site, and pull out the IV in a smooth fashion.

      5. Hold pressure for 1-2 minutes until bleeding as stopped

      6. Dress with gauze and tape or bandaid

      Want to learn more?

      Hopefully this gave you a good grasp on the basics of how to start an IV.

      But if you want to learn more and become an IV King or Queen, I HIGHLY recommend The IV Video Course by @TheIVGuy.

      The IV Video course is EXACTLy what you need to take your IV skills to the next level

      This course includes:

      • 57 Video modules from the IV basics to more advanced techniques, tips, and tricks
      • In-depth notes with each video module
      • Specific video lectures on how to successfully place IVs in challenging patients including geriatric, bariatric, combative, obese, and IV drug users
      • 21 video demos of basically every type of IV insertion possible
      • 2 hours of CEUs by an accredited ANCC provider

      I also include some great free bonuses with the course, including:

      • IV Complications: Prevention, Detection, and Management 8-page pdf
      • IV PUSH GUIDE 15-page pdf
      • Nursing Procedure Manual: Chest Tube Insertion 13-page pdf

      Check out more about the course here

      How to start an IV

      How to Suture: Simple Laceration Repair

      How to Suture: Simple Laceration Repair

      This post may contain affiliate links, which means I get a commission if you decide to purchase through my links, at no cost to you. Please read affiliate disclosure for more information

      Knowing how to suture is imperative for a nurse practitioner or any other provider, especially within Emergency, Urgent Care, and family practice settings. Your experience suturing during clinical will vary depending on your rotations, but unfortunately many NP students graduate without solid suture experience. Many job interviews will ask if you are comfortable suturing, and your answer could literally make or break the interview.

      Hopefully this full breakdown of how to suture will help you be able to confidently know how to suture

      How to suture: Thumbnail

      As a heads up, this article is long and full of helpful infographics, so to please feel free to use the Table of Contents to navigate this page if it helps!


       When to Suture?

      Even if you know how to suture, don’t forget to recognize when to suture. Suturing is not always indicated. Sometimes there are other alternative wound closure options, and sometimes it is best to let the wound heal by itself (termed secondary intention).

      Where is the Laceration?

      The location of the laceration will help determine the need for sutures, as well as the size of sutures needed and when they should be removed. Sutures are commonly used for simple lacerations of the hands, feet, extremities, and face. Lacerations of the scalp are often better suited for closure with staples. Staples can also be used in areas where cosmetic results are not necessary, especially when the laceration is >5cm.

      Depth of the Laceration

      Superficial lacerations that do not extend through the epidermis often do not need to be sutured closed and will heal without difficulty with good cosmetic results. Additionally, some well-approximated lacerations that aren’t under areas of tension can be better closed with steri-strips or dermabond. Deeper gaping lacerations may need to have the subcutaneous tissue approximated with internal absorbable sutures first, then closed with non-absorbable sutures at the surface.

      How Old is the Laceration?

      The age of the laceration will have a major impact on your decision to suture. Clean, uninfected lacerations can be closed up to 18 hours following an injury. Facial wounds can be closed after the incident up to 24 hours, or even 48-72 hours in some cases with no risk factors for infection.

      Mechanism of Injury

      How the laceration occurred is also a very important part of the history in a patient with a laceration. This can cue you in on the need for X-rays to determine a foreign body or to rule out a possible fracture. A fracture with overlying open skin is considered an open fracture, and these should not be closed and are usually treated with at least one dose of IV antibiotics and Ortho consultation.

      The mechanism of injury can also give you a better indication of the degree of contamination, although proper assessment of the wound should too. Seriously contaminated wounds require extensive irrigation and often prophylactic antibiotics with delayed closure.

      Animal Bites

      Animal bites (including human bites), especially in non-cosmetic areas such as the hands or feet, should NOT be closed as these are at high risk for infection. However, in some instances, primary wound closure can be done such as with certain dog bites. If the patient has diabetes or venous stasis, delayed closure is even more highly recommended. Be sure to give rabies immunoglobulin and vaccine when bitten by strays or unvaccinated animals that cannot be quarantined.

      Cat Bites

      Cat bites should be left open and treated with prophylactic antibiotics (usually Augmentin), and can be referred for delayed closure in 3 days if needed. However, cat bites on the face can be closed if within 24 hours prior to closure. Puncture wounds should not be closed.

      Dog Bites

      Dog bites have also traditionally been recommended to treat with prophylactic antibiotics and refer for delayed closure. However, recent literature seems to support primary closure of many of these wounds as a reasonable alternative. Most dog bites on the face, trunk, and extremities can be sutured, as long as <12 hours old, or <24 hours for the face. Bites on the hands or feet should not be closed, but rather referred in 3 days for potential delayed closure and of course treated with antibiotics as above.

      Human Bites

      Similar to cat bites, human bites should never be initially closed unless on the face that is less than 24 hours old. These wounds also warrant prophylactic antibiotics.

      Make Sure Tetanus is Up To Date

      Updating tetanus shots is necessary to prevent the patient from developing tetanus disease. Tetanus is a disease that can occur after contamination of a wound which causes painful muscle stiffness and spasms. In order to make sure the patient’s tetanus is up to date, you need to ask the patient when their last tetanus vaccination was. Many patients will not know.

      Update Tetanus Vaccination if: 

      • Received < 3 doses in their lifetime
      • Last dose > 10 years in clean and minor lacerations/ wounds
      • Last dose > 5 years in contaminated/complex* wounds (see below)

      Give tetanus immune globulin if:

      • Less than 3 Tetanus vaccinations in past (or unknown) AND contaminated/complex* wounds
      • HIV positive patients or those with severe immunocompetence

      *Contaminated wounds are those contaminated with feces, soil, dirt, or saliva. Complex wounds include puncture wounds, avulsions, crush injuries, or burns.

      Clean WoundDirty** Wound
      <3 Tdap* or unknownTdapTdap + TIg
      >3 Tdap but LKD >10yTdapTdap
      >3 Tdap but LKD >5yNoneTdap
      Tetanus UTDNoneNone

       *Tdap or Td (tetanus containing vaccination)
      TIg = Tetanus Immune Globulin | LKD = Last Known Dose | UTD = Up To Date
      **Dirty wounds are those contaminated with feces, soil, dirt, or saliva; puncture wounds, avulsions, crush injuries, or burns.

      How to suture - tetanus ppx
      How to suture: Animal bites

      Perform Appropriate Wound Assessment

      A good assessment of the laceration is also necessary. Be sure to assess their distal neurovascular status. Assess the tendon function in hand lacerations – make sure full ROM is maintained distal to the injury. Make sure no visible tendons are lacerated. Assure the wound does not appear infected or grossly contaminated. Observe for any signs of foreign bodies and ensure that bleeding is controlled. Measure the laceration’s length, width, and depth. These are all part of a good wound/laceration assessment and necessary for adequate documentation.

      Laceration Documentation Example: “4x1x1 cm laceration noted to the right posterior proximal forearm. Wound appears clean with smooth edges and scant bleeding. There are no foreign bodies or debris noted. No tendons are visualized. Distal neurovascular status intact including pulse, cap refill, color, temperature, sensation, and ROM.”

      How to Suture

      So now we know it is appropriate to suture, we’ve updated the patient’s tetanus if needed, and we have done a proper assessment of the patient’s laceration. We can finally learn how to suture a laceration. In this article, I will be overviewing the most common suturing method, which is the simple interrupted suture, which is appropriate for most simple lacerations.

      1. Collect your Equipment

      Before you’re able to suture, you will need to collect all of your equipment to irrigate, clean, anesthetize, suture, and dress the wound.

      Irrigation Equipment:

      • Bottle of NS (50-100cc per cm) or an equivalent volume of tap water (One 250ml NS bottle usually sufficient)
      • 30-60cc syringe
      • 18g IV catheter (remove the needle)
      • Absorbable pads or towels
      • Kidney basin
      • Splash guard

      Suture Kit: (Often already collected and packaged)

      • Sterile drapes / field
      • Gauze (4×4)
      • Needle Driver
      • Tweezers or small toothed forceps
      • Scissors


      • 1 pair of clean gloves (for cleaning, irrigation, and anesthetizing)
      • 1 pair of sterile gloves (for suturing)

      Sutures: See below

      Anesthetic Material:

      • Lidocaine with or without Epinephrine
      • 3-10cc syringe
      • 25-30g needle
      • Blunt needle

      Choosing the Suture Type

      There are many different suture types, those that are either absorbable or nonabsorbable. Each suture type will change the suture’s properties including tensile strength, knot strength, elasticity, and whether or not they will absorb on their own.

      Nonabsorbable Sutures

      Nonabsorbable sutures have been the standard for simple laceration repairs, and they are what I almost always use. These can be used anywhere and have good tensile strength, knot security, are easy to work with, and have minimal tissue reactivity (aside from silk). Nonabsorbable sutures include:

      Nylon: High tensile strength, elastic, minimal tissue reactivity, low cost, requires 3-4 knot throws.

      Polypropylene (Prolene): High tensile strength, low tissue reactivity, requires 4-5 knots. Can come in blue color which is helpful in the scalp or dark-skinned individuals

      Polybutester (Novafil): Similar to above, but has greater elasticity so can be helpful if significant wound edema is expected

      Silk: Not as strong, higher tissue reactivity, but still used for central lines, chest tubes, etc

      Absorbable Sutures

      Absorbable sutures used to only be used for deep sutures, and are still used for internal sutures with very deep lacerations. However, some advocate for its use in primary closure of percutaneous lacerations in adults and children using fast-absorbing gut sutures. This is especially useful in children who will fight against suture removal. Some common absorbable sutures are:

      Chromic gut: retains tensile strength for 10-14 days, often used for oral mucosa, but has increased tissue reactivity for subcutaneous internal sutures.

      Vicryl: Retains tensile strength 3-4 weeks, complete absorption in 60-90 days. Ideal choice for subcutaneous sutures.

      Vicryl Rapide: Retains tensile strength 10-14 days, “falls off” in 7-10 days. Useful for under casts, can be used as an alternative to nonabsorbable sutures , but possible risk of infection and tracking vs nonabsorbable although was NOT statistically significant in research.

      Absorbable vs Nonabsorbable?

      While nonabsorbable are generally recommended for wound closure, a meta-analysis found equivalent cosmetic outcomes and no significant difference in wound infection or dehiscence, although follow-up was insufficient in several studies. Department culture will often dictate what you use. You will not gro wrong with nonabsorbable nylon interrupted sutures of the appropriate size.

      How to suture absorbable vs nonabsorbable sutures

      Choosing the Suture Size

      The size of the sutures will determine how big the needle and thread are. Depending on the location, certain sizes are recommended. The larger the number, the smaller the size and lower the strength. 1-0 are the largest, and 10-0 are the smallest, but most simple laceration repairs will use anywhere between 3-0 to 6-0.

      To choose your size, simply assess where the laceration is. See the table below for more information.

      LocationSuture SizeWhen to Remove
      Face6-0 preferred,
      5-0 acceptable
      5 days
      Scalp4-0 or 5-0
      staples preferred
      7 days
      Eyelid6-0 or 7-05-7 days
      Eyebrow5-0 or 6-05-7 days
      Oral Mucosa5-0 (chromic gut)NA
      Arm5-0, 4-0 near joint7-10 days
      Hand5-07-10 days
      Leg4-07-10 days
      Foot4-012-14 days
      Chest/Abdomen4-0 or 5-012-14 days
      Back4-0 or 5-07-10 days


      How to suture - suture size and removal

      Choosing the Anesthetic

      To suture, you will need to numb the surrounding area as you will be sticking a needle in their skin multiple times. Your main decision will be whether or not to use the lidocaine with or without epinephrine.

      Lidocaine 1-2%

      Lidocaine is the go-to anesthetic for laceration repair. Max dose is 5mg/kg (max 300mg), which you won’t come close to with smaller basic lacerations. The 1% comes in at 10mg/mL, and the 2% is 20mg/mL. Lidocaine will begin working in 45-90 seconds, and will last for 30-90 minutes.

      Lidocaine is usually injected via local infiltration. Enter the subcutaneous space from the inside of the wound, slowly making your way around the entire laceration circumference. Most basic lacerations will only require between 1-3cc of lidocaine.

      Local infiltration will give the patient a “pinch and a burn” while injecting. One way to decrease pain is to mix 1cc of bicarb with 10cc of lidocaine. However, in adults the lidocaine injections are usually tolerable, so this may be more wasteful than helpful. Alternatively, frequent pinching of the skin has been found to decrease discomfort.

      Lidocaine 1-2% with Epinephrine 1:100,000

      Lidocaine with Epi is great for wounds that are bleeding or are more likely to bleed while suturing. These include highly vascular areas like the face. This is because the epinephrine causes local vasoconstriction. It also blanches the skin, which makes it easy to see where you’ve numbed after a few minutes. The addition of epinephrine also causes decreased systemic absorption, causing a longer duration of action of the lidocaine (~3 hours).

      Traditionally Lido w/ Epi was avoided in areas like the fingers, nose, or ears as the worry is causing vasoconstriction and risking skin necrosis. However, the evidence is lacking so Uptodate basically says you can. However, it is still recommended to avoid injecting the digits with epinephrine-containing lidocaine in those with peripheral vascular disease.

      How to suture: LIdocaine with vs without epinephrine infographic

      2. Anesthetize the Area

      Prepare the area with 1 or 2 absorbable pads and have clean gauze ready, as local infiltration will often cause mild bleeding of the wound as well as leakage of the anesthetic agent.

      Clean the wound surface with an alcohol wipe (which will sting) or diluted betadine (1:10 iodine to NS solution). This is to briefly clean the area before injecting, as you likely have not irrigated the wound yet. Do not use betadine surgical scrub as this can be toxic to the wound.

      Use a blunt needle to draw up your anesthetic into a 3cc or 5cc syringe. Replace the needle with a fresh 25-30g needle. Inject the dermal area just inside the edge of the wound, locally infiltrating the anesthetic. You should be able to see the surrounding skin “swell” up. Note that sometimes the anesthetic has a tendency to leak out the wound – catch this with your clean gauze. Remove the needle and inject it again, slowly making your way around the wound. Be sure to use the previously numbed tissue that you just injected. It won’t be fully numb yet, but it will be less painful for the patient with subsequent pokes.

      For lacerations on the distal digits, a digital block will likely be the best choice, as there is usually not much space to infiltrate in these areas. These are also very sensitive, and local infiltration can be very uncomfortable for the patient.

      3. Irrigate the Laceration

      Irrigation of a laceration is essential to prevent infection and clear any foreign bodies or debris. Cleaner wounds will need less irrigation, whereas more contaminated wounds will need more irrigation. Generally, it is acceptable to irrigate 50-100cc per cm of the laceration.

      To irrigate, make sure your absorbable pads are in place as this can get the patient pretty wet.

      Open a sterile NS bottle or alternatively use tap water, and fill a 30-60cc syringe. Attach an 18g catheter to the end of the syringe – this is to increase the pressure of the irrigation. Inject the water or saline into the wound with high pressure, catching any water with a kidney basin if possible. The use of a splash guard is helpful to prevent splashback.

      Once cleaned, it is often easier to measure the dimensions of the wound.

      4. Set up Sterile Field

      Once the laceration has been anesthetized and irrigated, you can begin setting up your sterile field.

      Maintaining a sterile environment is another important factor in preventing infection. However, it might not be as necessary as once thought when suturing a simple laceration. Multiple randomized control trials (RCTs) have found clean gloves did not have higher infection rates than sterile gloves. Nonetheless – sterile technique is still often recommended and is considered the “standard”.

      Most suture kits will have sterile drapes within them. Open your suture kits in a sterile fashion. Drop your open sutures onto the kit or field in a sterile manner. Drop any other necessary equipment (gauze) if needed.

      Clinical Tip: You can pour some sterile NS into small containers or the sterile kit itself onto the gauze. This is optional but I find it personally useful to have wet gauze when wiping away scant bleeding during the procedure.

      Remove your clean gloves, wash your hands, and apply sterile gloves. Set up your sterile drapes – have the patient lift their arm or leg to assist you if needed. Some kits will have a sterile perforated drape to help focus your sterile field, which is optional. Once you are all set up, you can finally start suturing.

      5. How to Suture the Wound

      To begin suturing, you first need to decide which type of suture technique you are going to use. Most simple lacerations can be repaired with simple interrupted sutures. This is what I use 99% of the time in the Emergency Department.

      Before placing sutures, make sure the bleeding has stopped, as continued bleeding after closure can lead to hematoma formation.

      To perform the simple interrupted stitch, insert the needle at a 90° angle (side A). You should start about 5mm (0.5cm) from the edge of the laceration, 5mm deep, and come out 5mm on the other side of the wound. Facial lacerations require a finer touch and are recommended to be 2.5mm from edge, 2.5mm deep, and 2.5mm apart.

      I usually place the first suture in the center of the laceration. You will often need 2 bites for the first stitch – one for each side of the wound, as the edges of the wounds are usually not well approximated. However, I find that often after the first stitch the other sutures can usually be achieved within one bite.

      Clinical Tip: You can use toothed or untoothed forceps in your suture kit to help manipulate the skin – but I find this is usually unnecessary and leads to more local trauma to the wound.

      Once you pull your needle through the other side (side B), pull the thread through until you leave a short tail on the original side. Place your needle driver in the middle, parallel to the wound. Wrap the long-tail side B around the needle driver with two loops for the first throw. Grab onto the short tail of Side A with the needle driver, pulling toward side B while simultaneously pulling the long-tail side B toward side A. Pull tight enough to approximate the skin but not too tight. This creates a square knot. Be sure to pull the knot to one side of the wound so that it is not overlying the laceration. Perform this same knot throw about 3-4 more times, except you only need to loop around the needle driver once instead of twice for subsequent throws in the same knot.

      Clinical Tip: When tying the knots, be sure to do most of the pulling with the long-tail and your hand, as pulling too hard on the short-tail with the needle driver can elongate the tail and lead to wasted suture material. As far as number of knots, a good rule of thumb is to use the same amount of knot throws as the size of the sutures (3 knots for 3-0, 4 knots for 4-0, 5 knots for 5-0, etc).

      When you have thrown the appropriate number of knots, use the scissors in your kit to cut both ends at approximately 5mm length.

      For your next stitch, you can start working in either direction about 5mm away from the first (2.5mm on the face), or you can bisect each remaining side until the wound is closed.

      6. Dress the Wound

      Once the laceration is closed, the last step is to dress the wound. Apply bacitracin or Neosporin directly to the wound, and then apply a nonadherent dressing. I use a Telfa dressing covered by dry gauze, then wrapped with Kerlix. Other nonadherent dressings can be used as well (nonadherent sterile gauze), and even a simple bandaid can be used for small lacerations (works well for the face).

      Suture Discharge instructions?

      Wound instructions

      Providing excellent discharge instructions is imperative, as there is usually a good amount of necessary follow-up that needs to occur.

      Tell the patient to leave the dressing in place for 24-48 hours, and can then be opened to air. The wound should be covered if possible contamination is expected (such as while at work). Nonabsorbable stitches can be cleaned gently with soap and water twice a day. Half-strength hydrogen peroxide can be used twice daily to prevent crusting over sutures, especially on the face. The patient can use an OTC antibiotic ointment or white petroleum ointment twice a day as well if desired, which can help prevent scar formation and promote healing. It is generally recommended to avoid submerging the wound in water until it is healed.

      My Patient Discharge Instructions: Keep the wound clean and dry for 24-48 hours, then you can wash it gently twice a day with soap and water, but otherwise do not submerge wound in water. You may use Neosporin if desired to help prevent infection and scab formation. Please return for a wound check in 2-3 days if red/swollen/or if there is discharge from the wound, otherwise your sutures will need removed in X days. This can be done at your doctor’s office, an urgent care, or back here in the ED.


      Always recommend a wound check in 2-3 days if the patient has any noticed redness, swelling, or discharge of the wound. Otherwise – they will need to follow-up when the sutures will need to be removed (which will depend on the location as stated above).

      If the patient is high-risk for infection (Diabetes, on chemo, renal disease, etc) or if the wound was highly contaminated, a wound check in 2-3 days should be recommended regardless.

      Prophylactic PO antibiotics can be given for contaminated wounds, animal or human bites, patients with vascular insufficiency, or immunocompromise.

      That concludes how to suture! There are other suture methods, and there isn’t always a “one size fits all”. If you are still confused, there are plenty of videos on youtube which you can check out as well! Let me know if you have any questions below and I’ll try to answer them. For more in-depth reading, check out the Uptodate articles listed in the references below!

      How to suturer

      10 IV Insertion Tips for Nurses

      10 IV Insertion Tips for Nurses

      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C
      William J. Kelly, MSN, FNP-C

      Author | Nurse Practitioner

      IV Insertion is a skill that most nurses will need to become familiar with.

      Nurses in the hospital use IVs every day to infuse fluids and medications, as well as to draw blood. While IVs are very useful, sometimes IV insertion can be difficult, – especially for the new or inexperienced nurse.

      With time and experience, your IV skills will improve. In the meantime, use these 10 IV insertion tips to help you start an IV and sink those IVs like a pro.

      1. IV Insertion: Location Location Location


      IV insertion - vein anatomyThe best location of your IV insertion really depends on which setting you are in, as well as the specific patient’s chief complaint.

      It is common for inpatient nurses to be upset with AC lines, but the fact of the matter is an AC line is likely an ER nurse’s best friend.

      If a patient presents with anything that can even possibly get a CTA – You’re better off choosing the AC. The LAST thing anybody wants to do is have to unnecessarily poke someone again.

      So – if the patient has a neurological complaint (stroke s/s), cardiac complaint, or pulmonary complaint – a CTA may possibly be ordered and most hospital facilities/radiology staff won’t inject the high-pressured dye unless there is at least an 18g or 20g in a large vein (aka AC and above).

      Additionally, patients who are hemodynamically unstable should receive a 16g – 18g in an AC for large fluid resuscitation.

      If the patient is getting continuous infusions and the patient occlusion alarm keeps going off, ask the patient if you can place another IV preferably in the forearm or hand.


      Forearms are the perfect location for continuous fluids because they don’t kink with arm bending.

      However, not everyone has great forearm options.

      Additionally, forearm veins do not always reliably give great blood return for bloodwork, although this may mainly be a consideration in the ED where they typically draw blood work during IV insertions.


      Hand IVs are sometimes the easiest veins to see. However, they are usually relatively small veins, and placing an 18g here may be somewhat difficult.

      They are great for short periods of time, but can easily become irritated.

      Additionally, they limit the use of the hand and are more likely to start hurting the patient – especially with vasocaustic infusions such as vancomycin or potassium.

      2. Small veins? Make them Larger


      Heat is great because it causes vasodilation. When veins dilate, they become bigger.

      Applying a warm compress or hot pack can help you visualize the vein, palpate the vein, and can even make threading the IV easier when starting an IV.

      Just ensure the compress is not too hot to cause thermal burns.


      Putting the arm in a dependent position forces blood pooling in the distal veins, which will make them bigger and easier to see and palpate.

      This should make IV insertion easier with a higher chance of success.

      Also Read: “10 ER Nursing Hacks you Need to Know”

      Nitroglycerin Ointment 2%

      A small amount of 2% Nitroglycerin can be topically applied to a small area in order to dilate the peripheral veins.

      In a small study, those with 2% Nitro ointment applied to the dorsum of their hands required fewer needle sticks than the controlled group.

      Please note that this is a medication, so you need an order!

      3. IV Insertion with Fragile Veins

      Change your Selection

      Sometimes, elderly patients tend to have crappy veins.

      Sure, you can see them alright, but once you stick them – they blow immediately (even with a 22g).

      This is definitely a good time to look for larger more proximal veins, as IV insertion in these veins tends to be more stable and not blow immediately.

      Forget the Tourniquet

      If you can visualize or palpate the vein without a tourniquet – try the IV insertion without the tourniquet.

      Tourniquets are great for engorging the vein and causing it to dilate, but they also add pressure to the vein.

      Already fragile veins will have an increased tendency to blow with the added pressure from the tourniquet. Never forget to remove the tourniquet before flushing the IV!

      4. Don’t Give Up during IV Insertion

      OK – some people HATE digging when starting an IV – and this is understandable. However, sometimes it is minimally painful and you can thread the catheter within a few seconds of “digging”.

      The trick is to not “dig” blindly – but instead use your fingers to palpate the accurate direction of the vein.

      After inserting the needle with the catheter, if you do not get a flash of blood, pull the needle and catheter back out to almost out of the skin, re-palpate the vein, and aim again in the direction of the vein.

      I can’t even count how many times I missed on the first pass, but immediately threaded the IV on the 2nd or 3rd advancement.

      The patient also experiences some desensitization of their pain receptors and it is usually less painful than being poked again.

      However, some patients really do NOT tolerate this, and they will let you know not to “dig”.

      Quick Note: It is not recommended to retract only the needle while leaving the catheter in place, and then re-advancing the needle. This leads to a risk of fracturing the catheter and can possibly lead to a foreign body in the patient’s body!

      Related content: “How to Start an IV”

        5. Go Big or Go Home

        Smaller is not always easier. Sometimes 22g and below are too flimsy.

        When the veins are sclerosed, hardened, or there is scar tissue – choosing a 20G might be a better bet in order to thread the catheter without any issues.

        Besides – 20g IVs are better in an emergency and are more durable.

        Related content: “5 Vital Signs Error to Avoid”

        6. Arterial Stick

        When inserting an IV, you can accidentally hit an artery instead of a vein.

        First, if the IV is pulsating – take it out immediately. It’s possible the vein is just right next to the artery, but it is likely you are actually in the artery.

        This is usually accompanied by blood filling up the catheter VERY quickly – depending on the patient’s mean arterial pressure.

        Arterial blood tends to be a bright red, versus the darker red of venous blood.

        So what’s the harm? Access is access, right?

        Well, sure that makes sense on the surface. But peripheral IVs inserted in arterial lines tend to have much higher complications – the worst of which being thrombophlebitis.

        You can literally cause a blood clot in the patient’s arm. This is even more of a risk if medications are infused through it.

        Remove the catheter and try again in an actual vein.

        7. Inserting the IV Outside the Box

        Or rather – think outside the lower arm.

        If you can, look at the upper arm as sometimes there are large veins close to the surface.

        Most facilities prefer you to stick an IV in an arm, but there are exceptions. If the patient is an extremely hard stick and needs access, you can look at lower extremities, but caution against it as these are high risk for infection.

        No – don’t go for these strange areas initially, but in an emergency, any access is better than none.

        However, in a code situation – temporary placement of an Intraosseous (IO) catheter is preferred.

        If a better IV site still cannot be obtained, someone skilled with ultrasound-guided IV placement should try, or a PICC/Central line should be considered.

        8. Angle Danger

        I have watched MANY nurses and nursing students miss when inserting an IV purely because of their technique.

        They hold the skin taut, stabilize the vein, and insert – but they go right through the vein and can’t thread the catheter.

        I have seen that this is often from approaching the vein with too much of an angle.

        You should really aim to be near parallel with the skin (10-30 degrees). Gliding the needle into the vein with this angle means once you get a flash, the needle is likely still within the vein and the catheter can be advanced.

        The exception is if you are aiming for a deeper vein – you may need to increase the angle accordingly.

        If you find that you insert the needle and cannot float the catheter in, despite having a “good” flash of blood – try pulling the needle and catheter out just a millimeter or two, and try advancing just the plastic catheter again.

        Related content: “How to Start an IV”

        9. Rollie Pollie Ollie

        Sometimes patient’s veins just like to roll – and the patient will likely forewarn you about this. There are a few things you can do to minimize this.

        First, pick a larger more proximal vein. These veins tend to be more stable.

        Second, make sure you stabilize the vein by holding the skin taut with your non-dominant hand.

        Lastly, make sure the patient does not tense up their muscles during the insertion. Tensing of muscles will cause movement of the veins. To minimize muscular contractions – use the tip below!

        10. Patient Comfort

        This IV insertion tip is really more for patient comfort than anything else. After you clean the IV site, place the needle flush with the skin right where you are going to poke.

        Press the needle with the bevel up into the cleansed skin for 3-5 seconds before you poke. The longer you wait – the more desensitized their skin receptors will become – this theoretically should decrease pain.

        With less perceived pain, the patient is less likely to tense up and should lead to a smoother successful IV placement. When I was an ER nurse, I used this technique every time and seemed to have good results.

        Well, there you have it – 10 IV insertion tips to improve your IV game! If you have any additional tips that I didn’t mention – leave a comment below letting everyone know!

        You might want to also read:

        Want to learn more?

        Hopefully this gave you a good grasp on the basics of how to start an IV.

        But if you want to learn more and become an IV King or Queen, I HIGHLY recommend The IV Video Course by @TheIVGuy.

        The IV Video course is EXACTLy what you need to take your IV skills to the next level

        This course includes:

        • 57 Video modules from the IV basics to more advanced techniques, tips, and tricks
        • In-depth notes with each video module
        • Specific video lectures on how to successfully place IVs in challenging patients including geriatric, bariatric, combative, obese, and IV drug users
        • 21 video demos of basically every type of IV insertion possible
        • 2 hours of CEUs by an accredited ANCC provider

        I also include some great free bonuses with the course, including:

        • IV Complications: Prevention, Detection, and Management 8-page pdf
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        Check out more about the course here.