How Does a Catheter Work?

How Does a Catheter Work?
How Does a Catheter Work? (Image:

A catheter is a small plastic tube used to help those unable to use the bathroom urinate. The tube is inserted through the urethra and into the bladder. Urine then empties through the tube into a plastic bag. Catheters can be used both for in-home treatment and in hospitals for patients who are bedridden.


A catheter can easily be inserted in just a few minutes. Though a medical professional is not needed to insert a catheter, training from a medical professional is recommended to ensure that the user can insert the catheter without causing damage to the urethra. To insert a catheter, you lubricate the tube with KY jelly. Then you carefully insert the tube into the urethra through the penis for men or through the small opening located just below the clitoris and above the vagina in women. Once the tube reaches the bladder, the urine should automatically start flowing through the tube.

Hospital Use

A hospital catheter is more permanently installed into the patient. This avoids continuous inserting and removing of the catheter and so provides less discomfort to the patient. Instead, the bag is regularly changed and the catheter stays inserted until it is no longer needed. For hospital (and some home) use catheters, once the tube has reached the bladder, a small balloon on the tip of the catheter is inflated. This allows the catheter to stay in place.

Personal Use

A personal catheter can be used in your own home. These catheters come in both disposable and reusable forms. You do not insert them until you feel the urgent need to urinate. The catheter tube can then be inserted to empty the bladder and then immediately removed. The bladder can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes to empty. These catheters can be taken anywhere, including in the car and on airplanes.

Reusable Catheters

Having a reusable catheter means taking extra steps to prevent infection. You must sterilize the catheter each time before using. Use water and a mild soap to wash the area of the tube that is inserted. If possible, apply rubbing alcohol to the area as well. Let the alcohol dry before inserting the catheter back into the urethra.

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