You will use a catheter (tube) to drain urine from your bladder. You may need a catheter because you have urinary incontinence (leakage), urinary retention (not being able to urinate), surgery that made a catheter necessary, or another health problem.
What to Expect at Home
Urine will drain through your catheter into the toilet or a special container. Your health care provider will show you how to use your catheter. After some practice, it will get easier.
Sometimes family members or other people you may know, such as a friend who is a nurse or medical assistant, may be able to help you use your catheter.
You will get a prescription for the right catheter for you. Generally your catheter may be about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long, but there are different types and sizes. You can buy catheters at medical supply stores. You will also need small plastic bags and a gel such as K-Y jelly or Surgilube. Do not use Vaseline (petroleum jelly). Your provider can also submit a prescription to a mail order company to have your catheters and supplies delivered directly to your house.
Ask how often you should empty your bladder with your catheter. In most cases, you empty your bladder every 4 to 6 hours, or 4 to 6 times a day. Always empty your bladder first thing in the morning and just before you go to bed at night. You may need to empty your bladder more frequently if you have had more fluids to drink.
You can empty your bladder while sitting on a toilet. Your provider can show you how to do this correctly.
Using Your Catheter
Follow these steps to insert your catheter:
- Wash your hands well with soap and water.
- Collect your supplies: catheter (open and ready to use), towelette or other cleaning wipe, lubricant, and a container to collect urine if you are not planning to sit on the toilet.
- You may use clean disposable gloves, if you prefer not to use your bare hands. The gloves do not need to be sterile, unless your provider says so.
- With one hand, gently pull the labia open, and find the urinary opening. You can use a mirror to help you at first. (It is sometimes helpful to sit backwards on the toilet with a mirror propped up to help see the area.)
- With your other hand, wash your labia 3 times from front to back, up and down the middle, and on both sides. Use a fresh antiseptic towelette or baby wipe each time. Or, you may use cotton balls with mild soap and water. Rinse well and dry if you use soap and water.
- Apply the K-Y Jelly or other gel to the tip and top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of the catheter. (Some catheters come with gel already on them.)
- While you continue to hold your labia with your first hand, use your other hand to slide the catheter gently up into your urethra until urine starts to flow. Do not force the catheter. Start over if it is not going in well. Try to relax and breathe deeply. A small mirror may be helpful.
- Let the urine flow into the toilet or container.
- When urine stops flowing, slowly remove the catheter. Pinch the end closed to avoid getting wet.
- Wipe around your urinary opening and labia again with a towelette, baby wipe, or cotton ball.
- If you are using a container to collect urine, empty it into the toilet. Always close the toilet lid before flushing to prevent germs from spreading.
- Wash your hands with soap and water.
Cleaning Your Catheter
Most insurance companies will pay for you to use a sterile catheter for each use. Some kinds of catheters are meant to be used only once, but many catheters can be re-used if they are cleaned correctly.
If you are reusing your catheter, you must clean your catheter every day. Always make sure you are in a clean bathroom. Do not let the catheter touch any of the bathroom surfaces (such as the toilet, wall, and floor).
Follow these steps:
- Wash your hands well.
- Rinse out the catheter with a solution of 1 part white vinegar and 4 parts water. Or, you can soak it in hydrogen peroxide for 30 minutes. You can also use warm water and soap. The catheter does not need to be sterile, just clean.
- Rinse it again with cold water.
- Hang the catheter over a towel to dry.
- When it is dry, store the catheter in a new plastic bag.
Throw away the catheter when it becomes dry and brittle.
When away from your house, carry a separate plastic bag for storing used catheters. If possible, rinse the catheters before placing them in the bag. When you return home, follow the above steps to clean them thoroughly.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your provider if:
- You are having trouble inserting or cleaning your catheter.
- You are leaking urine between catheterization.
- You have a skin rash or sores.
- You notice a smell.
- You have pain in your vagina or bladder.
- You have signs of infection (a burning sensation when you urinate, fever, fatigue, or chills).
Clean intermittent catheterization - female; CIC - female; Self-intermittent cathterization
Dauw CA, Wolf JS. Fundamentals of urinary tract drainage. In: Partin AW, Dmochowski RR, Kavoussi LR, Peters CA, eds. Campbell-Walsh-Wein Urology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 12.
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Review Date 1/10/2021
Updated by: Kelly L. Stratton, MD, FACS, Associate Professor, Department of Urology, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.