A urinary catheter is a hollow, partially flexible tube that collects urine from the bladder and leads to a drainage bag. Urinary catheters come in many sizes and types. They can be made of:

  • rubber
  • plastic (PVC)
  • silicone

Catheters are generally necessary when someone can’t empty their bladder. If the bladder isn’t emptied, urine can build up and lead to pressure in the kidneys. The pressure can lead to kidney failure, which can be dangerous and result in permanent damage to the kidneys.

Most catheters are necessary until you regain the ability to urinate on your 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 time or permanently.

A doctor may recommend a catheter if you:

The reasons why you may not be able to urinate on your own can include:

There are three main types of catheters: indwelling catheters, external catheters, and short-term 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 short and long periods of time.

A nurse usually inserts an indwelling catheter into the bladder through the urethra. Sometimes, a healthcare provider 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 with water 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. It’s 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 usually need to be changed daily, but some brands are designed for longer use. These can cause less skin irritation than condom catheters that require daily removal and reapplication. A wound, ostomy, and continence nurse (WOCN) can help make these recommendations.

Short-term catheters (intermittent catheters)

A person may only need a catheter for a short period of time after surgery until the bladder empties. After the bladder empties, it’s necessary to remove the short-term catheter. Healthcare providers refer to this as an in-and-out catheter.

In a home setting, people are trained to apply the catheter themselves or with the help of a caregiver. It can be done through the urethra or through a hole created in the lower abdomen for catheterization. Read more on the benefits of intermittent catheterization.

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:

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)
  • septicemia, or infection of the urinary tract, kidneys, or blood

Read more about catheter-associated urinary tract infections.

One-time use catheters and reusable catheters are available. For reusable catheters, be sure to clean both the catheter and the area where it enters the body with soap and water to reduce the risk of a UTI. One-time use catheters come in sterile packaging, so only your body needs cleaning before inserting the catheter.

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. Read more on clean intermittent self-catheterization.