Urinary catheters

A urinary catheter is a thin tube that is used to empty your bladder if you are unable to pass urine (wee, mimi) naturally.

Key points

  1. A catheter is inserted into your urethra (the part of the body that connects your bladder to the outside) and through to your bladder to let urine flow from your bladder into a drainage bag or toilet.
  2. Catheters can be used either for a short period of time, for example following some surgeries or to perform certain medical tests, or long-term due to conditions such as urinary incontinence (unable to control when you wee) or paralysis.
  3. There are different types of catheter, depending on why you need to use one.

What types of catheters are available?

Different catheters are used depending on whether they stay in your bladder or are removed once your bladder is empty.

Intermittent catheter

An intermittent catheter is inserted into your bladder to drain the urine, and once your bladder is empty it’s removed.

Intermittent catheters are inserted a few times throughout the day, as decided by your doctor or nurse. Many people learn how to insert a catheter themselves.

Indwelling catheters

An indwelling catheter (IDC) is inserted into your bladder but, unlike an intermittent catheter, it is not removed when your bladder is empty. It is held in place by a small, water-filled balloon that is connected to the catheter. The catheter is attached to a drainage bag outside your body that can be secured to your leg or rest on the floor.

Some indwelling catheters continuously drain urine from your bladder while others have a valve that is opened every few hours to drain your bladder when it feels full.

Suprapubic catheters

A suprapubic catheter is a tube that is inserted through your abdominal wall into your bladder. Urine is drained from your bladder into a drainage bag outside your body. A small stitch in your abdomen helps to keep a suprapubic catheter in place. Suprapubic catheters are used when the urethra is damaged or a catheter is unable to be inserted through your urethra.

What are the possible complications of using a urinary catheter?

The most common complication of catheter use is a urinary tract infection. See your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • pain or burning during or immediately after passing urine
  • fever, tiredness or shakiness
  • an urge to urinate (go to the toilet) more often
  • passing small amounts of urine more frequently
  • pressure in your lower belly
  • urine that smells bad or looks cloudy or reddish.

Kidney infections, called pyelonephritis, are less common but are still a risk, and can be caused by an untreated or undiagnosed urinary tract infection.

Other complications include:

  • bladder spasms
  • leakage from the catheter

Your doctor or nurse can give you advice and problem-solving tips.

What self-care can I do when using a urinary catheter?

If you’re using a catheter long-term, your doctor or nurse will show you how to look after it, including what to do if you have a problem, and tips for managing day to day. They will also give you information on how to clean your drainage bags and how to order equipment and supplies.

Although urinary tract infections are common with catheter use, there are ways to minimise your risk:

  • Always wash your hands before and after touching your catheter and drainage bag or before any catheter care.
  • Most intermittent catheters are single-use only, meaning you throw the catheter away once you have used it to drain your bladder. Your doctor or nurse will advise you what equipment you can wash and reuse.
  • Wash the area around your catheter every day; women should make sure they wash from front-to-back, ie, wash from your urethra towards your back passage.
  • Follow the advice from your doctor or nurse.

Looking after your indwelling catheter

  • If you have an indwelling catheter it’s important to make sure your drainage bag is kept lower than your bladder, and make sure there are no kinks in the tubing – this makes sure urine flows from your bladder into the drainage bag and not back up your urethra into your bladder. It’s a good idea to empty your drainage bag regularly during the day so the weight of a full bag doesn’t pull on the tube. 
  • Most people will be supplied with a bag to use during the day and a different one at night. Catheter bags can be cleaned each day and reused. Your health professional will let you know how often you need to use a new bag (often once a week) and will show you how to properly clean and dry the bags. It’s important to follow the advice of your doctor or nurse to minimise your risk of infection.
  • Indwelling catheters are usually changed every 6–12 weeks by your doctor or nurse. 

It’s possible to maintain your sex life with an indwelling catheter – talk with your doctor or nurse about ways to manage this.

Support

Your local district nursing service provides ongoing support and management of your catheter cares, including catheter supplies. Talk with your GP if you need help accessing services.

Learn more

Urinary catheterisation Better Health, Australia, 2015 

References

  1. Urinary catheters NHS Choices
  2. Urinary catheters Ministry of Health
  3. Urinary tract infection Health Navigator
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.