Urinary catheters are hollow, partially flexible tubes that collect urine from the bladder. Urinary catheters come in many sizes and types. Catheters can be made of:
- plastic (PVC)
The catheter tube leads to a drainage bag that holds collected urine.
Catheters are generally necessary when a patient is unable to empty their bladder. If the bladder isn’t emptied, urine can build up and lead to pressure in the kidneys. The pressure can result in kidney failure, which can be dangerous and may result in permanent damage to the kidneys.
Most catheters are necessary until the patient regains the ability to urinate on their own, which is usually a short period of time. Elderly people and those with a permanent injury or severe illness may need to use urinary catheters for a much longer amount of time and sometimes on a permanent basis.
A doctor may recommend a catheter if you’re unable to control when you urinate, if you’re leaking urine (urinary incontinence), or if you’re unable to empty your bladder when you need to (urinary retention).
The reasons why you may not be able to urinate on your own include:
- blocked urine flow due to bladder or kidney stones, blood clots in the urine, or severe enlargement of the prostate gland
- surgery on your prostate gland
- surgery in the genital area, such as a hip fracture repair or hysterectomy
- injury to the nerves of the bladder
- spinal cord injury
- a condition that impairs your mental function, such as dementia
- medications that impair the ability of your bladder muscles to squeeze, which causes urine to remain stuck in your bladder
There are three main types of catheters.
Indwelling Catheters (Urethral or Suprapubic Catheters)
An indwelling catheter is a catheter that resides in the bladder. It may also be known as a Foley catheter. This type can be useful for both short and long periods of time. A doctor usually inserts an indwelling catheter into the bladder through the urethra.
Sometimes, a doctor will insert the catheter into the bladder through a tiny hole in the abdomen. This type of indwelling catheter is known as a suprapubic catheter.
A tiny balloon at the end of the catheter is inflated to prevent the tube from sliding out of the body. The balloon can then deflate when the catheter needs to be removed.
External Catheters (Condom Catheters)
A condom catheter is a catheter placed outside the body. This type of catheter is typically necessary for men who don’t have urinary retention problems but have serious functional or mental disabilities, such as dementia. A device that looks like a condom covers the penis head. A tube leads from the condom device to a drainage bag.
These catheters are generally more comfortable and carry a lower risk of infection than indwelling catheters. Condom catheters need to be changed daily.
Short-Term (Intermittent) Catheters
Sometimes a patient only needs a catheter for a short period of time after surgery. After the bladder empties, it’s necessary to remove the short-term catheter.
According to an article in BMC Urology, indwelling urinary catheters are the leading cause of healthcare-associated urinary tract infections (UTIs). Therefore, it’s important to routinely clean catheters to prevent infections. The symptoms of a UTI may include:
- cloudy urine (due to pus)
- burning of the urethra or genital area
- leaking of urine out of the catheter
- blood in the urine
- foul-smelling urine
- low back pain and achiness
Other complications from using a urinary catheter include:
- allergic reaction to the material used in the catheter, such as latex
- bladder stones
- blood in the urine
- injury to the urethra
- kidney damage (with long-term indwelling catheters)
- infection of the urinary tract, kidney, or blood (septicemia)
Be sure to clean both the catheter and the area where the catheter enters the body with soap and water to reduce the risk of a UTI. You should also drink plenty of water to keep your urine clear or only slightly yellow. This will help prevent infection.
Empty the drainage bag used to collect the urine at least every eight hours and whenever the bag is full. Use a plastic squirt bottle containing a mixture of vinegar and water or bleach and water to clean the drainage bag.