Urinary Catheters Explained

Catheters Commonly Used After Surgery

Urinary catheter bag

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A catheter is a general term for a tube that is inserted into the body. A urinary catheter is a tube that is inserted into the bladder to drain urine. There are multiple types of urinary catheters used for a variety of conditions, and the right catheter for one person is not necessarily the right catheter for another person. The condition making the catheter necessary often guides the choice of what type of catheter is necessary for the patient.


Straight catheter: This type of catheter is rubber-like tube inserted into the urethra and up into the bladder then removed when the bladder has drained completely. They do not stay in the bladder for extended periods of time. Straight catheters are intended to be used only once, but for some patients who must use a straight catheter throughout the day at home, they may be sterilized and reused.

Suprapubic catheter: This type of catheter is not inserted into the urethra, it is placed through a low abdominal incision directly into the bladder. This type of catheter is typically used after a surgery that disrupts the normal flow of urine, such as prostate surgery, and often remains in place for days to weeks or even permanently.

Coude catheter: This is a type of indwelling catheter, like the Foley. The difference is that the tip of the Coude catheter has a slight curve, which helps thread the catheter through the urethra when there is an obstruction, such as an enlarged prostate.

Condom catheter: This type of catheter is not inserted, rather, it is placed on the penis much like a condom would be, to collect urine in an attached bag. This type of catheter is only used in males and is worn through the day to collect urine during episodes of incontinence.

Foley Catheter: A Foley catheter, also known as an indwelling catheter, is a catheter that remains in place for an extended period of time. The catheter is attached to a collection bag where urine can be emptied periodically. The tip of the catheter is inserted into the urethra and up into the bladder, where a small balloon is inflated to keep it in place.

Purpose of a Urinary Catheter

A urinary catheter is used when the patient is unable to control their bladder. This may be because they are very ill, incontinent, they may have a condition that makes urination difficult (such as a spinal cord injury), or they are not awake.

For example, a catheter is often placed at the beginning of surgery because the patient will not be conscious for the procedure. Without the catheter, the patient might urinate during the procedure and potentially contaminate the sterility of the procedure, or their bladder could become distended with urine during a long procedure.

To prevent infections, catheters are only used when necessary. In hospitalized patients, it is intensive care patients that typically have a catheter for more than a day. For others, the catheter is removed as soon as they are awake or well enough to urinate independently.

Urinary retention is an issue where the bladder fails to empty completely. Depending on the severity of the issue, a temporary catheter, called a straight catheter, may be used to drain the bladder.

Risks of a Urinary Catheter

The primary risk of short-term catheterization is a urinary tract infection. In addition, the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the bladder, can become irritated. The skin surrounding the insertion site can also be injured and should be inspected regularly for signs of breakdown.

In rare cases, a urinary tract infection can lead to urosepsis, a systemic infection that can be very serious.

Placement of a Urinary Catheter

A catheter is placed using a sterile technique, to prevent infection and sterile lubricant. Most catheters are inserted into the urethra, then gently threaded through the urethra into the bladder.

Removal of a Urinary Catheter

A catheter is typically very easy to remove. If there is a balloon at the tip of the catheter, the balloon is deflated, then the catheter is gently pulled to remove it from the body. The process is typically painless unless there is irritation present in the urinary tract. If the process is painful, a topical medication can be used to numb the area.

Urinary Catheter Care at Home

If you are caring for an indwelling catheter at home, catheter care can be performed in the shower or bath. After gently cleaning your genital area as you normally would, the catheter tube can be gently cleaned with a washcloth and mild soap. Take care not to tug or pull on the catheter, or try to push the catheter further into the body, as this can cause irritation. Be sure to rinse the soap off completely.

A catheter and the attached drainage bag should only be touched after washing your hands with soap and water, this can help prevent infection.

A Word From Verywell

Urinary catheters are common in the hospital setting, but new research and guidelines encourage hospital staff to remove catheters as quickly as is reasonably possible. This is done to prevent urinary tract infections and to decrease the risk of side effects such as difficulty urinating. 

Urinary catheters are rarely allowed to stay in place for convenience like they once were, and are typically only allowed when necessary for the patient's health.

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