Wondering what a urinary catheter is? Here’s everything you need to know about how a catheter works. This is a simple guide to catheters.
The world of catheters can feel confusing, and a little difficult to talk about. We’re here to help. These are all the basics you need to know about how catheters work, what catheters are used for, and how you can find the right catheter for you.
Let’s start with the a definition:
What is a urinary catheter?
A catheter is a flexible tube inserted via your urethra into your bladder to allow for drainage. They can be made of rubber, plastic (PVC), or silicone.
Your doctor will prescribe usage and they are considered a “medical device.”
What is a catheter used for?
A catheter drains the bladder from the urine when your body cannot empty it normally. It could be for a temporary issue, say post-surgery, after childbirth, or during a hospital stay, or as part of a daily routine related to an ongoing condition. The reasons could include:
- An injury or blockage to the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the bladder)
- An enlarged prostate
- Kidney, ureter, or bladder stones
- Issues such as anatomical defects affecting the urinary tract
- Bladder weakness or nerve damage
- Neurogenic issues such as a spinal cord injury, spina bifida, or Multiple Sclerosis
- Diabetes, strokes, bladder cancer, or other prostate problems that may result in bladder control issues.
Typically the need falls into two categories: neurogenic (nerve-related) or non-neurogenic. You can read more about the potential reasons for catheterization here.
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe catheterization to temporarily measure your urinary output.
How does a catheter work?
The catheter is inserted into your urethra until it enters your bladder and allows urine to flow. The other end of the tube is left open-ended to allow drainage either into a toilet or into an attached bag that collects the urine. Once the urine drainage stops, the catheter is removed and should be disposed of.
Intermittent catheters are inserted several times a day, long enough to drain your bladder, and then removed. The catheter should be sterilized and is often pre-lubricated to make the process as comfortable as possible. In recent years new polymer coatings have been added to help minimize friction, as well as integrating antimicrobials to help counter the risk of infection.
Your doctor will prescribe the right catheter system for you and teach you the technique of performing the process yourself. The process may seem daunting but can become part of your normal routine with a little practice. Even children or those with reduced hand function can properly catheterize themselves. The key is to establish a healthy routine that minimizes potential side effects or complications.
Essentially catheterization replaces your normal trips to the restroom and so you should repeat the process at roughly the same times you would use the bathroom, say four to six times daily. By using an intermittent catheter, you can mimic the natural urination process and still have the freedom to do all of your normal daily activities—exercising, socializing, going back to work, even having sex.
In some cases, continuous catheterization is needed. An indwelling catheter stays inside the body for a longer period, and is either inserted through the urethra into the bladder or through the stomach (suprapubic). A healthcare professional will insert an indwelling catheter and it will remain in place for several days to several weeks or weeks.
What type of catheter is right for me?
There are many different types of intermittent catheters, each one tailored to your specific condition or needs. When you are selecting the right one for you there are multiple points to consider. There is a range of options on the market for you to choose from—from specific sizes to slightly different models from brands like Coloplast, Cure, and Bard. You and your medical professional will work together to find the right solution and they will prescribe a type for you. You can read our full guide to catheters here.
Most systems use a straight insertion tip as it tends to work universally and allows for periodic emptying of the bladder with a sterile catheter, helping to prevent UTIs. But in some cases, a coudé tip is preferred for a more gentle insertion. These are typically prescribed for men with an enlarged prostate as the curved tip can bypass tight spots with ease. Female catheters are designed slightly differently, you can read more about the specifics here.
Closed system catheters allow you to cath into a self-contained collection bag. This system works well for pediatric patients or wheelchair users and helps reduce the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) as they allow for discreet, secure, and reliable catheterization wherever you are.
What are the side effects of using a catheter?
Urinary tract infections can be a common side effect, but with proper hygiene, you can minimize your chance of contracting one. You should thoroughly wash your hands before and after touching catheter equipment, keeping the area around your cath clean, and stick to your regular schedule to prevent UTIs.
Beyond UTIs, a urinary catheter user may experience:
- allergic reactions to material used in the catheter
- urethral strictures
- bladder stones
- blood in the urine
- injury to the urethra
- kidney damage caused by long-term indwelling catheters
- septicemia, or infection of the urinary tract, kidneys, or blood
Discuss your condition and any issues you have with your doctor for more specifics.
At Medipply, our mission is to help make the process of purchasing your catheter supplies easier. Find out how we make the process of buying catheters and supplies more user-friendly, and how we work to ensure that you can purchase the right catheters for your needs with insurance, by connecting you with the providers you prefer, and streamlining the process of getting the medical supplies you need. Have questions? Check out our list of frequently asked questions and learn about how Medipply can help.