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Patient education: Using a catheter to empty the bladder (The Basics)

Patient education: Using a catheter to empty the bladder (The Basics)

What is a catheter? — A catheter is a thin tube that goes inside the body. Some catheters are used to empty the bladder. These are called "urinary catheters." They are placed in the "urethra," the tube that carries urine from your bladder out of the body (figure 1).

There are many situations in which a urinary catheter might be used, such as during surgery. This article is only about urinary catheters used at home by people who have medical conditions that prevent them from urinating normally.

Urinary catheters can be:

Disposable – This means you use a new one each time you need to drain urine, then throw it away.

Reusable – These are catheters that can be cleaned and reused for up to 4 weeks.

Why do I need a catheter to empty my bladder? — You might need to use a catheter to empty your bladder if you have a condition that keeps you from urinating the normal way. These conditions include:

Spinal cord injury – The spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that runs down your back. If it is injured, you might not be able to control when you urinate.

Neurogenic bladder – This condition causes problems with bladder control.

How do I put the catheter in? — First, gather all your supplies, including:

The catheter

A container to catch the urine (or you can drain it into the toilet)

Lubricant – This is a gel that helps the catheter slide in more easily. Example brands include K-Y Jelly and Surgilube. Do not use petroleum jelly (sample brand name: Vaseline). Some disposable catheters come with lubricant already on them.

Here are the steps for a male to put in a catheter (figure 2):

Wash your hands with soap and water

If you are not circumcised, gently pull back the foreskin of your penis

Clean the tip of your penis with soap and water

Put lubricant on the catheter, if the catheter did not come with lubricant on it

Hold your penis straight out, away from your body

Gently put the catheter into your urethra

After the catheter has gone in the length of your penis, it will be harder to push in. Relax, breathe deeply, and push the catheter in about 1 more inch (2.5 cm).

Urine will start to flow out of the catheter. Hold the catheter steady until the urine stops.

Take the catheter out slowly to make sure all the urine comes out

Clean the catheter with soap and water and store it in a clean, dry place

Here are the steps for a female to put in a catheter (figure 3):

Wash your hands with soap and water

Stand with 1 foot on the toilet, or another position that you find comfortable

Clean the area around your urethra with soap and water

Put lubricant on the catheter, if the catheter did not come with lubricant on it

With 1 hand, spread your labia with your fingers. Find the opening to your urethra with the tip of your first finger.

With the other hand, gently put the catheter into the urethra. (Most people find it easier to use the hand they write with for this step.)

Guide the catheter up toward your belly button

After the catheter has gone into your body about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm), urine will start to flow

After the urine starts flowing, keep pushing the catheter 1 more inch. Hold it in place until the urine flow stops and the bladder is empty.

Take the catheter out slowly to make sure all the urine comes out

If the catheter is disposable, throw it away. If it is reusable, clean it with soap and water and store it in a clean, dry place.

How do I clean and store my catheter? — If you have a reusable catheter, you will need to clean it after each use. To do this:

Wash the catheter with mild soap and water

Rinse the catheter well

Place the catheter on a clean towel to air dry

When it is dry, store it somewhere clean and dry, like in a sealed plastic bag

If you use a container to catch your urine, clean that with soap and water after each use, too.

Be sure to follow all instructions for how often to replace your catheter.

How often should I use the catheter to empty my bladder? — Most people use it between 3 and 6 times a day. Your doctor can tell you when and how often to use the catheter.

How long will I need to use a catheter to empty my bladder? — It depends. If you have a spinal cord injury or other long-term problem with controlling your bladder, you will need to use it for the rest of your life. If you have a different problem, you might only need to use it until your bladder starts working normally again. Your doctor will tell you when you can stop using the catheter.

When should I call the doctor or nurse? — Call your doctor or nurse if you have any symptoms of a urinary tract infection (also called a "UTI"). These might include:

Pain or a burning feeling when you urinate

The need to urinate often

The need to urinate right away or in a hurry

Blood in your urine


You should also call if:

You have trouble putting in the catheter, for example, it hurts a lot or won't slide in easily

You get the catheter in, but no urine is coming out

You get the catheter in, but see blood coming out through or around it

You have trouble removing the catheter

Your catheter gets broken or damaged and you don't have a replacement

More on this topic

Patient education: Paraplegia and quadriplegia (The Basics)
Patient education: Neurogenic bladder in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Asymptomatic bacteriuria (The Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 02, 2023.
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