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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.

You'll be given a supply of catheter equipment when you leave hospital and be told where you can get more supplies. 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 charity Bladder and Bowel Community has more information on intermittent self-catheterisation.

Indwelling catheters

An indwelling catheter can either drain into a bag attached to your leg, which has a tap at the bottom so it can be emptied, or they can be emptied into the toilet 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 charity Bladder and Bowel Community has more information on indwelling catheters.

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 every day
  • wash your hands with soap and warm water 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 a pale colour
  • 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 or bends in the catheter and make sure any urine collection bags are always kept below the level of your bladder

Read more about the risks of urinary catheterisation.

Having a urinary catheter should not stop you from doing most of your usual 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 usual.

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 sex is easier for you.

Contact your community nurse (the hospital or your GP practice can give you a number to call), your GP surgery, or NHS 111 if:

  • you develop severe or ongoing bladder spasms (like 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 surgery as soon as possible)
  • you have symptoms of a UTI, such as lower abdominal pain, a high temperature and you feel shivery
  • your catheter falls out (if it's indwelling and you have not been taught how to replace it)

Read more about the risks of urinary catheterisation.

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 charity Bladder and Bowel Community provides information and support for people with bladder and bowel conditions.