What is a urinary catheter?

A urinary catheter is a medical device designed to help individuals manage their ability to urinate.


Urinary retention

For someone who is unable to empty their bladder without assistance (a conditional called urinary retention), a catheter can be passed into the bladder to drain urine. Individuals with nerve injuries to the brain, spinal cord or bladder, and those with multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, enlarged prostate or other conditions that affect normal bladder function, may need to use a catheter.


Urinary incontinence

Accidental urine loss (a condition called urinary incontinence) is a common condition for both men and women. To help manage incontinence your doctor may recommend an internal catheter, if the problem is severe. Additional devices, such as external catheters for men and female urethral inserts for women (used for stress incontinence), are also available. Both men and women can also use disposable incontinence products.


Common types of internal catheters

The two most common types of internal urinary catheters are intermittent and indwelling. Both are designed with a small tube that is passed through the urethra (the duct which carries urine out of the body) and into the bladder (a sac which holds the urine until it is passed from the body through the urethra). Once in place, internal catheters allow for passage of urine from the bladder into a drainage bag or directly into the toilet.


Intermittent catheters

In general, intermittent catheters are available in a three different styles: straight, coudé (curved) and closed (connected to a bag), and are made of three different materials: red rubber (latex), silicone and PVC (polyvinyl chloride). There is a lower incidence of urinary tract infections (UTI) with intermittent catheters when compared to other options, such as indwelling catheters. Within the intermittent line of catheters, there is an even lower incidence of UTIs with closed-system catheters, which reduce the chance of introducing bacteria into the bladder, limit hand contact with the catheter itself and drain directly into a bag. Note: Although both men and women can use intermittent catheters, the coudé tip is typically used by men.


Indwelling (Foley) catheters

An indwelling catheter remains in the bladder for an extended period of time and is inserted by your doctor or health care professional. The catheter is held in place with a small balloon that is filled with water after insertion. The open end is connected to a bag that can be worn on the body. A drain valve on the bag allows for emptying as needed.


For patients who have some sort of obstruction that does not allow the flow of urine through the urethra, a suprapubic catheter may be recommended. A suprapubic catheter is surgically inserted into the bladder through a small incision in the abdomen to allow for draining the bladder. The thin, flexible tube connects the bladder inside the body to a drainage collection bag outside the body.


External urinary devices

Condom catheters

Men who experience urinary incontinence may benefit from a male external catheter called a condom catheter. This type of catheter is worn like a condom and connects to a leg bag or bedside drainage collector. Condom catheters are easy to put on and remove.


Female urethral inserts

Female urethral inserts are used to help prevent stress incontinence, so they may provide women with an alternative method to manage urinary leakage. A female urethral insert gently glides into the urethra and creates a soft seal at the bladder neck. It conforms to a woman’s unique shape to help prevent urine leakage without surgery. Your doctor will need to fit you for this device and explain how to put it in and remove it.


Health insurance coverage

Medicare allows for one catheter for each episode of catheterization, up to 200 intermittent catheters per month. Most private health insurance companies follow guidelines similar to those of Medicare. Please call Edgepark at 1-866-528-2142 for questions about health care coverage guidelines and catheters


Note: A caregiver or health care professional may need to help with catheter use, depending on an individual’s mobility and hand dexterity.



Related articles:
Common questions and answers about urinary catheters
Three reasons you should avoid reusing catheters
Catheters and health care coverage