A catheter is a tube used to drain urine from the bladder. Catheters may be used when needed (intermittently), or on a more permanent basis.
Intermittent self-catheterisation (ISC) is when you pass a catheter into your bladder via the urethra - the tube that connects the bladder to the outside of your body. The tube is used to drain urine from your bladder. When you are finished, you remove and dispose of the catheter. The term 'intermittent' is used because this normally takes place several times a day. You will usually be taught how to use a catheter by a nurse or continence advisor.
Intermittent self-catheterisation is usually used if you find it difficult to fully empty your bladder (known as urinary retention).
Benefits of self-catheterising may include fewer urinary tract infections and better control over bladder symptoms. If you know you can control when you need to empty your bladder it can improve your confidence and cause fewer concerns about whether there are toilets nearby.
Long-term catheter use
Long-term catheters are normally only used when other treatments you have tried have not been successful. They can be useful if you lack of control of your bladder, both during the day and at night.
There are two types of long-term catheter:
- indwelling urinary catheters
- suprapubic catheters.
Indwelling urinary catheters
Indwelling urinary catheters are normally used if you are unable to use intermittent self-catheterisation.
As with intermittent self-catheterisation, indwelling urinary catheters are inserted into the bladder through the urethra. The catheters are similar, but an indwelling catheter has a small, inflatable balloon at the bladder end that keeps it in position.
The free end of the catheter is attached to a leg bag to collect the urine. The bag is usually attached to your leg with Velcro straps and can be easily emptied into a toilet when full. Some indwelling catheters come with a valve, rather than a bag, so that you can empty your bladder directly into a toilet. At night, the catheter may be attached to a night drainage bag that hangs by the side of the bed.
There are different types of indwelling urinary catheters. They are only available on prescription from a doctor. Your doctor or a nurse should discuss the range of options and catheters available. A doctor, nurse or continence advisor should fit the catheter and teach you how to manage and empty it. The training will reduce the risk of hygiene problems when changing drainage devices, which can cause urinary tract and urine infections.
A suprapubic catheter is a more long-term approach to bladder problems. The catheter is inserted directly into your bladder through the abdominal wall. This is a surgical procedure done by a urologist (a specialist in bladder problems).
Urine is collected in a bag that can be easily emptied when full.
Some people prefer a suprapubic catheter as they are less intrusive, are usually easy to manage and allow full sexual activity. There can sometimes be problems with healing at the point where the catheter is inserted into the body. There is also the risk of urine infections if the drainage bag is not changed cleanly.
Last reviewed: November 2017
Last updated: April 2016
This page will be reviewed within three years