A urinary catheter is a hollow tube that is used to drain the urinary bladder when a person is unable to empty their bladder on their own. Catheters are made from various materials, including some that contain latex and others which are latex-free. They are flexible and most commonly are placed into the bladder through the urethra. The urethra is the tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the body, through which normal urination occurs.
Some of the reasons that a person might not be able to urinate on their own are:
Blockage of urine flow due to:
- bladder stones
- enlarged prostate
- blood clots in the urine
- stricture (narrowing) of the urethra
Inability of the bladder to squeeze due to:
- neurologic (nerve) injury to the bladder
Any of these causes can be a serious and life-threatening problem if not treated promptly. Inability to empty the bladder can result in a buildup of urine that causes backpressure in the kidneys, and kidney failure may result. By placing a urinary catheter the urine is able to flow out of the bladder and decrease the dangerous pressure build-up in the bladder. The catheter normally drains into a collection bag where the amount of urine can be measured.
Having a urinary catheter placed can be a scary thing. It is a common practice to use lidocaine jelly (a local anesthetic) to numb the urethra, in both adults and children, prior to placing a urinary catheter. This is the same type of medication that dentists use to numb your mouth before a dental procedure.
Most often catheters are used for short periods of time while people regain the ability to empty their bladder without assistance. Such a need is common after surgery, or during acute illnesses where the patient is temporarily disabled.
It may be necessary in some people who are permanently disabled due to injury, severe illness, or advanced age to have a catheter placed long-term (for many years). In these situations, the catheter needs to be changed about every six weeks, to reduce the chance of infections. The most common problem with catheters that are left in place for long periods of time is urinary tract infections. Foley catheter bags should be rinsed every day. Catheter care should be done every day by cleaning the catheter with a wash cloth and warm soapy water.
For patients who require chronic long-term of the bladder, a method for intermittent catheterization has been developed. In this situation a catheter is placed in the bladder to drain urine, and then the catheter is removed. This is usually done by the patient themselves or a caretaker, between 4 and 5 times a day.
If you are ever in a situation when you or someone you know is unable to urinate, get medical attention immediately. If you or someone you care for use a catheter, be sure to follow instructions to help avoid any complications.