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What is a urinary catheter?

Urinary catheters are tubes placed into the bladder to drain urine, usually for people who can't pass urine normally.

Long-term catheters are left in place for weeks before being replaced. Intermittent catheters are put into the bladder for a few minutes as the urine drains from the bladder, and then the catheter is removed.

Long-term catheters are held in place by a fluid sac (a balloon) filled with sterile water, which stops the catheter falling out. Intermittent catheters don't have a balloon, as they are not meant to stay in the bladder after the urine has drained. 

Long-term catheters are inserted by a health care professional, such as a registered nurse.

What happens to the urine in long-term catheters?

A long-term catheter is often attached to a drainage bag or drainage bottle, where the urine is stored until it's emptied into the toilet.

Some people use a catheter valve to stop the urine from draining from the bladder until the valve is opened, usually every few hours. After the urine has drained, the valve is closed again. There are a few different types of catheter valves. After completing a continence assessment, a health care professional will advise which is suitable to the person's needs.

A urine leg bag attaches to the person's leg and usually holds up to 6OOml of urine. An overnight drainage bag (also called a night bag) can be added to the system at night by connecting it to the leg bag or catheter valve. These bags can attach to the bed frame or mattress. They may also suit a person who is in bed all the time, as these bags hold up to 2 litres of urine.

Need more help? Call the National Continence Helpline on 18OO 33 OO 66 and talk to a continence nurse advisor.

Take the Quiz

Question 1

An intermittent urinary catheter:

stays in the bladder for months

has a balloon to keep it in place

stays in the bladder for days

is put in the bladder to drain urine and then removed.

Question 2

A urine drainage bag:

is only used with an intermittent catheter

lets the urine drain straight out of it

automatically empties into the toilet

stores urine drained from the bladder until the bag is emptied.

Question 3

A night bag can:

can be connected to a leg bag or catheter valve

may suit someone who is in bed all the time

hold up to 2 litres of urine

all of the above.

Question 4

A catheter balloon:

is filled with air

has to be let up and down every day

helps keep the catheter inside the bladder

plugs the bladder to stop the urine leaking out.

This information is not a substitute for independent professional advice.