Urinary catheter : Living with

It's possible to live a relatively normal life with a long-term urinary catheter, although it may take some getting used to at first.

Your doctor or a specialist nurse will give you detailed advice about looking after your catheter.

Catheter equipment

You'll be given a supply of catheter equipment when you leave hospital, and you'll be told where you can get more supplies from. Catheter equipment is generally available on prescription from pharmacies.

You'll also be shown how to empty and change your equipment.

Intermittent catheters

Intermittent catheters are usually designed to be used once and then thrown away.

How to use them varies from person to person. You may be advised to use them at regular intervals spaced evenly throughout the day, or only when you feel you need the toilet.

The British Association of Urological Surgeons (BAUS) website has more detailed leaflets on self-catheterisation in men (PDF, 158kb) and self-catheterisation in women (PDF, 160kb).

Indwelling catheters

Indwelling catheters can either drain into a bag attached to your leg, which has a tap on the bottom so it can be emptied, or they can be emptied into the toilet or suitable receptacle directly using a valve.

You should empty the bag before it's completely full (around half to three-quarters full). Valves should be used to drain urine at regular intervals throughout the day to prevent urine building up in the bladder. Leg bags and valves should be changed every 7 days.

The bag can be attached to your right or left leg, depending on which side is most comfortable for you. 

At night, you'll need to attach a larger bag. Your night bag should either be attached to your leg bag or to the catheter valve. It should be placed on a stand next to your bed, near the floor, to collect urine as you sleep. Single use night bags are usually used to reduce the risk of infection.

The catheter itself will need to be removed and replaced at least every 3 months. This is usually done by a doctor or nurse, although sometimes it may be possible to teach you or your carer to do it.

The BAUS website has a more detailed leaflet about the management of urethral catheters (PDF, 173kb).

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Preventing infections and other complications

Having a long-term urinary catheter increases your risk of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs), and can also lead to other problems, such as blockages.

To minimise these risks you should:

  • wash the skin in the area where the catheter enters your body with mild soap and water at least twice a day
  • wash your hands with warm water and soap before and after touching your catheter equipment
  • make sure you stay well hydrated – you should aim to drink enough fluids so that your urine stays pale
  • avoid constipation – staying hydrated can help with this, as can eating high-fibre foods, such as fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods
  • avoid having kinks in the catheter and make sure any urine collection bags are kept below the level of your bladder at all times

Read more about the risks of urinary catheterisation.

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Your regular activities

Having a urinary catheter should not stop you from doing most of your normal activities. You'll be advised about when it's safe for you to go to work, exercise, go swimming, go on holidays, and have sex.

If you have an intermittent catheter or a suprapubic catheter, you should be able to have sex as normal.

Indwelling catheters can be more problematic, but it’s still usually possible to have sex with them in place. For example, men can fold the catheter along the base of their penis and cover them both with a condom.

In some cases, you may be taught how to remove and replace the catheter so you can have sex more easily.

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When to get medical advice

Contact your community nurse (the hospital or your GP practice can give you a number to call) or your GP practice if:

  • you develop severe or ongoing bladder spasms (similar to stomach cramps)
  • your catheter is blocked, or urine is leaking around the edges
  • your urine is bloodstained or has specks of blood in it (you may have accidentally pulled on your catheter); contact your community nurse if you continue passing bloodstained urine or urine with blood specks
  • you're passing bright red blood (contact your GP as soon as possible)
  • you have symptoms of a UTI, such as lower abdominal pain, a high temperature and chills
  • your catheter falls out (if it's indwelling and you have not been taught how to replace it)

Go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if your catheter falls out and you cannot contact a doctor or nurse immediately.

Read more about the risks of urinary catheterisation.

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Support groups and further information

Living with a catheter can be challenging. You may find it useful to get more information and advice from support groups and other organisations.

For example, the Bladder and Bowel Foundation provide information and support for people with bladder and bowel conditions.

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