Urinary Catheters: Uses, Types, Risks

While urination is usually done in the bathroom, there are some cases where a person will not be able to get up and go to the toilet themselves.

In these cases, an alternative option needs to be used to assist the patient.

A urinary catheter tends to be the most common way of ensuring a patient can empty their bladder when they are unable to get out of bed.

What are Urinary Catheters?

A urinary catheter, sometimes also called an indwelling catheter, is a type of medical device that assists with the emptying of the bladder. The device is used in patients who are unable to get up and use the toilet themselves2.

The most common reason why a person might need to use an indwelling urinary catheter is at times when they are recovering from a surgical procedure or specific condition, where they will need to remain still for a certain period of time.

In cases where a person develops a serious medical condition, there may be a need for long-term use of a catheter.

The device usually consists of multiple parts, including a somewhat flexible tube. The tube is inserted into the urethra of the patient, where it is then pushed toward the bladder. Once the tube reaches the bladder, it will assist with the collection of urine that accumulates in the patient’s bladder.

At the end of the tube will be a device, which often includes something as simple as a bag that will collect the urine that is removed from the patient’s bladder.

A catheter can be produced from different materials. The most common materials used in the production of a catheter include silicone, plastic, and rubber.

Patients must understand why they might require the use of a urinary catheter. These medical devices ensure the bladder will be able to empty at times when the patient is unable to drain it themselves.

When the bladder cannot empty effectively, the patient may be at risk of several complications.

One particularly important factor to consider here is that pressure tends to build up in the patient’s kidneys when the bladder cannot empty. The use of a catheter can help to ensure this type of problem does not occur.

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Types of Urinary Catheters

The term catheter does not refer to only a single medical device. Instead, several different types of catheters can be used to assist in helping a patient’s bladder empty more effectively.

The specific type of urinary catheter that will be used depends on several factors, such as why the patient may need to use this type of medical device, as well as how long it will be used for.

Let’s consider the different types of urinary catheters that are available today and how each of them can assist the patient.

Indwelling Catheter

Catheterization often includes the use of an indwelling catheter, primarily because the tube used in this particular option can help to reach the bladder more effectively.

These are often also called urethral catheters since the tube that is attached to the bag where urine collects will be pushed into the urethra during catheter insertion.

Both long and short-term assistance with bladder emptying may be treated with the use of an indwelling catheter.

While the product is most often pushed toward the bladder through the urinary tract, it should be noted that there are cases where indwelling urinary catheters may rather be inserted through the abdomen. In this case, a small hole is made in the abdominal region of the patient.

When an indwelling catheter is used, there is a small balloon at the end of the tube. This balloon is filled with water once the catheter has been inserted correctly.

The water causes the balloon to become inflated. The inflation of the balloon helps to keep the catheter’s tube in place – it is deflated when the catheter should be removed from the patient’s urethra.

External Catheters

Also known as condom catheters, this particular option is often used among male patients who do not suffer from common urinary tract problems that can cause issues with bladder emptying, such as urinary retention.

At the same time, the product will often be a preferred option for men who have dementia or other medical conditions that cause them disabilities in terms of their mental or physical functioning.

The use of this particular catheter involves the placement of a device over the head of the patient’s penis. The device looks similar in appearance to a condom and will collect urine when it is expelled through the urethra – and then lead it to a drainage bag.

The main reason why an external catheter is sometimes preferred over other options is due to the fact that it reduces the risk of certain complications.

For example, urinary tract infections might be found less often among men who use external catheters, compared to those with an indwelling catheter.

Short-Term Catheters

This option is usually called an intermittent catheter and is only used in cases where the patient will require a catheter for a short period of time. Another term often used to describe the use of a short-term catheter is an “in-and-out catheter.”

This is because the catheter is only used until the bladder has been emptied once – such as directly after the patient has undergone a surgical procedure. Silastic catheters have been recommended for short-term catheterization after surgery.

Compared with latex catheters, Silastic catheters have a decreased incidence of urethritis and, possibly, urethral stricture.

Intermittent self-catheterization is sometimes an option provided to a patient – allowing them to use this type of catheter themselves at home. Many at-home care providers are also provided the skills to use these catheters.

What conditions are Urinary Catheters used for?

To understand why a patient may be advised to use a urinary catheter, it is first important to consider the specific criteria that doctors will often use to determine if a particular individual should use such a medical device.

Generally, if the patient is unable to control their urination or they experience urinary retention, then a catheter might be used to help the patient effectively empty their bladder.

Incontinence: Urinary hesitancy and incontinence may also be criteria that require the use of a catheter, often only for a short period of time.

Various conditions can cause a patient to suffer from these symptoms. The potential causes in both men and women may include:

  • Kidney stones

  • Blood clots that form in urine

  • Injury dealt with the bladder’s nerves

  • Having suffered a spinal cord injury

  • Dementia and other conditions that causes cognitive impairment

Medication: Certain drugs can also cause a patient to experience these symptoms, especially those that are known to cause an impairment of the muscles that are responsible for opening and closing the bladder neck.

Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH): In addition to these conditions that may lead to the need for a catheter, we should also note that men, in particular, are at risk of developing the symptoms noted when they have an enlarged prostate.

Furthermore, men who undergo enlarged prostate surgery, or a procedure to treat another condition related to the prostate gland, may also need to use a catheter for some time.

Another potential reason why men might need to use a catheter is after they undergo a prostate artery embolization procedure.

Prostatitis: A man with a condition like prostatitis may also require the use of a catheter if the condition affects their bladder’s ability to empty fully during urination. This is especially the case when a procedure is needed to assist in the treatment of chronic prostatitis.

Men may sometimes look for natural tips to treat bladder problems. While there are several effective ways to improve the functioning of the bladder and the entire urinary tract, it is always important to discuss these with a healthcare provider – in some cases, the underlying causes may need to be treated by a professional.

Complications of using a Urinary Catheter

There is no doubt that a urinary catheter sometimes becomes a critical part of the recovery process for a patient.

Still, those who are advised to use this type of medical device should ensure they understand the risks that they will be exposed to.

Special care is needed while the catheter is attached to the person to minimize the risk and improve the outcomes.

Among patients who use a urinary catheter, lower urinary tract infection is considered one of the most concerning complications3.

Symptoms of a urinary tract infection include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Headache

  • Burning of the urethra or genital area

  • Leaking of urine out of the catheter

  • Foul-smelling urine

There is a higher risk for retrograde ejaculation in men who suffer damage to the prostate gland or urinary tract while a catheter is placed in their urethra.

To avoid these complications and the use of a catheter, people need to understand early signs of serious conditions that may ultimately harm the prostate gland, urinary tract, and bladder.

An excellent example would be for male patients to learn about the early warning signs of an enlarged prostate.


The use of urinary catheterization remains common in hospital settings. It can assist in allowing bladder emptying among bedridden patients, often following a surgical procedure or, in some cases, with a long-term illness.

While these medical devices do offer a critical function, patients do need to be made aware of the potential complications. Proper care may, however, reduce the risk of these problems associated with catheters.


  1. BMJ Open. (2016). Variation in the prevalence of urinary catheters: a profile of National Health Service patients in England. [online] Available at: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/6/e013842
  2. Journal of Medical Engineering & Technology. (2015). Urinary catheters: history, current status, adverse events, and research agenda. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4673556/
  3. AORN Journal. (2017). Indwelling Urinary Catheters: A Pathway to Health Care-Associated Infections. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28454610
  4. StatPearls. (2018). Urinary Tract Infection. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470195/

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