Urinary catheterisation is a procedure used to drain the bladder and collect urine, through a flexible tube called a catheter.
Urinary catheters are usually inserted by doctors or nurses in hospital or the community.
They can either be inserted through the tube that carries urine out of the bladder (urethral catheter) or through a small opening made in your lower tummy (suprapubic catheter).
The catheter usually remains in the bladder, allowing urine to flow through it and into a drainage bag.
Depending on the type of catheter you have and why it’s being used, the catheter may be removed after a few minutes, hours or days, or it may be needed for the long term.
Why urinary catheters are used
A urinary catheter is usually used in people who have difficulty passing urine naturally. It can also be used to empty the bladder before or after surgery and to help perform certain tests. Specific reasons include:
- to allow urine to drain if you have an obstruction in the tube that carries urine out of the bladder (urethra) – for example, because of scarring or prostate enlargement
- to allow you to urinate if you have bladder weakness or nerve damage which affects your ability to pee
- to drain your bladder during childbirth, if you have an epidural anaesthetic
- to drain your bladder before, during and/or after some types of surgery, such as operations on the womb, ovaries or bowels
- to deliver medication directly into the bladder, such as during chemotherapy for bladder cancer
- as a treatment for urinary incontinence when other types of treatment haven’t worked
The catheter will be used until it’s no longer needed. This may be for a short time and will be removed before leaving hospital, or it may be needed for longer or even permanently.
Types of urinary catheter
There are 2 main types of urinary catheter:
- intermittent catheters – catheters that are temporarily inserted into the bladder and removed once the bladder is empty
- indwelling catheters – catheters that remain in place for many days or weeks and are held in position by a water-filled balloon in the bladder
Many people prefer to use an indwelling catheter because it's more convenient and avoids the repeated catheter insertions associated with intermittent catheters. However, indwelling catheters are more likely to cause problems such as infections (see below).
Inserting either type of catheter can be uncomfortable, so anaesthetic gel is used to reduce any pain. You may also experience some discomfort while the catheter is in place, but most people with a long-term catheter get used to this over time.
Read more about the types of urinary catheter.
Looking after your catheter
If you need a long-term urinary catheter, you will be given detailed advice about looking after it before you leave hospital.
This will include advice about getting new catheter supplies, reducing the risk of complications such as infections, spotting signs of potential problems, and when you should seek further medical advice.
You should be able to live a relatively normal life with a urinary catheter. The catheter and bag can be concealed under clothes and you should be able to carry out most everyday activities, including working, exercising, swimming and having sex.
Read more about living with a urinary catheter.
Risks and potential problems
The main problem caused by urinary catheters are infections in the urethra, bladder, or less commonly the kidneys.
These types of infection are known as urinary tract infections (UTIs) and they usually need to be treated with antibiotics.
Catheters can also sometimes lead to other problems, such as bladder spasms (similar to stomach cramps), leakages, blockages and damage to the urethra.
Read more about the risks of urinary catheterisation