Using Foley and Other Types of Urinary Catheters

When and Why Catheters Are Used

When you're unable to urinate, the problem can quickly become serious. As urine builds up in the bladder, it becomes uncomfortable, then painful. If the problem continues, the bladder can become overly full and urine can back up into your kidneys, causing damage that can be permanent.

When this happens, a sterile, flexible tube called a urinary catheter is inserted into the urethra (where urine leaves the body) and is gently pushed up until the end rests in your bladder. The catheter then drains the urine into an attached bag.

transparent urine plastic bag and pee catheter hang under patient bed in hospital
surasak petchang / Getty Images

Urinary Catheters

Urinary catheters are often used during surgery, as you can't control your bladder while under anesthesia. 

For this purpose, a foley catheter is typically placed prior to surgery and keeps the bladder empty throughout. It often remains in place until the surgery is completed and you're awake and alert enough to begin urinating normally.

Foley Catheter

A foley catheter is a sterile urinary catheter that's intended to stay in place for an extended period of time.

The tip of the catheter has a balloon on it that can be inflated in the bladder and hold the foley in place. Urine then drains from the bladder through the tube and into a collection bag. It's also referred to as an indwelling catheter.  

This type of catheter is used when a patient is unable to urinate on their own, either because they are too sick, sedated, or unable to urinate without assistance because of a medical issue.

Straight Catheters

If your bladder just needs to be drained once, and the catheter doesn't need to remain in place, a straight catheter, or straight cath, is inserted and then removed once your bladder is emptied.

Risks of Urinary Catheters

A urinary catheter, regardless of type, increases the risk of a urinary tract infection. Despite the fact that sterile technique is used to insert them, the introduction of any foreign body into the urinary tract increases the risk of infection.

The longer a foley catheter stays in the bladder, or the greater the number of times a temporary catheter is inserted, the greater the chance of infection.

Why Catheters Are Used

Catheters are used for several reasons. The most common is urinary retention, or being unable to empty your bladder.

Additionally, many ICU patients are too sick to use a bedpan, so they'll have a foley catheter to manage their urine. 

Conditions that make using a bedpan painful, such as a broken hip, require the use of a urinary catheter, as well.

Catheters also are used in people who are urine incontinent and have a wound or surgical incision that could come into contact with urine. 

Catheters are sometimes used to manage incontinence, but this is becoming less common due to the increased infection risk.

Also Known As: Foley, Foley cath, straight cath, straight catheter,

Common Misspellings: Folee, Foaley, cathater, cathetar,

Examples: The foley catheter was inserted before surgery, as the patient would be under anesthesia for at least three hours.

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

  2. Home Care Delivered. What is a straight catheter?

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTI).

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Summary of recommendations.

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.