Learning to use a catheter may seem difficult at first, but it will soon be second nature to you. Two main difficulties commonly experienced by people new to catheters are discomfort and a potential increased risk of infection with catheter use. In this blog post, we will guide you through some simple steps you can take to ensure that your experience is both safe and comfortable.
Making Catheterization More Comfortable
Let’s face it, using a catheter can be uncomfortable, and sometimes may even be painful. The good news it that as you start to learn how to use catheters, there are several ways that you can ensure the process is more comfortable.
Lubrication involves applying a slippery substance to your catheter to ensure that it slides smoothly across the surfaces in your urinary tract. One of the main sources of discomfort is the pulling sensation that occurs when the catheter drags over the inside your urethra. Using about a teaspoon or more of lubricant and covering the first three inches of your catheter will help it to go in smoothly and reduce the discomfort caused by friction. Due to the increased risk for infection when inserting a catheter, it is important only to use lubricants that are sterile and that your doctor says can be used with a catheter.
If your catheter is too large, it will put extra pressure on the inside lining of your urethra, causing discomfort. If your catheter is too small, however, urine may leak around it when you insert it, or it may become easily clogged. Catheter sizes are measured using a system called the “French scale” or the “French gauge” and is a number followed by an “F”. The higher the number, the larger the diameter of the catheter. The most common catheter size for adults is 16F; any number below that is a smaller catheter, and any above that is a larger size catheter. Finding the balance of the right catheter size can be tricky and is something that is best discussed with your primary healthcare provider.
There are several different types of catheters with different features that can affect comfort. Some of these features include:
- Coated vs. Uncoated - The most commonly used catheters do not have any coating over the material the catheter is made of. Coated catheters have a coating called hydrophilic coating over the catheter material that helps it not to stick to the lining of the urethra, making them more comfortable to insert and pull out. A coated catheter is different from a pre-lubricated catheter, in that a lubricant is on the outside of the catheter, but is not a material that is part of the catheter.
- Pre-lubricated vs. Unlubricated - Some catheters will come with a lubricant that has been pre-applied. This allows the catheter to be inserted more easily and comfortably. If a catheter is not coated or pre-lubricated, you will need to apply lubrication prior to inserting it. Lubrication may come with the catheter or you may need to obtain it separately.
- Stiffness - The stiffer the catheter material is, the easier it is to push in. While more stiffness makes a catheter easier to insert, it is also rougher on the lining of the urethra. Your primary healthcare provider may be able to help you find the right balance of a catheter that is stiff enough to insert without difficulty, but flexible enough that it is gentle to insert.
- Coudé tip vs. Straight tip - Straight tip catheters are the most common type of catheter and have a straight tip on the end of the catheter. Coudé tip catheters have a bent tip and are designed for men with enlarged prostate glands. The prostate gland is a gland that surrounds part of the urethra and often gets slowly larger in men as they age, due to their hormone levels. As the prostate gland gets larger, it can press on the urethra, making it more difficult and painful to insert a catheter. The curved tip of the coudé tip catheters makes it easier and more comfortable for men with enlarged prostates to use catheters. An enlarged prostate gland is most common with a condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) where the prostate gland grows because of hormones. Prostate cancer may also cause an enlarged prostate.
A comfortable, well-fitted catheter can have a tremendous impact on your day to day life. You can ask us about our sample program to try out different catheters and find what’s best for you.
Preventing Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)
While comfort during catheterization is an important factor to consider, the risk of infection must also be taken into consideration. The bladder is typically a sterile environment, however, when a catheter is inserted inserted into the bladder, bacteria can get in, causing a urinary tract infection (UTI). The good news is that infection can be avoided with some simple precautions.
While washing your hands may seem like a simple step, it is actually very important. There are nearly-invisible bacteria that you come into contact with throughout the day without even realizing it. Taking fifteen seconds to wash your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before using a catheter can significantly reduce your risk of infection. Once you have washed your hands, it is best to avoid touching other parts of your body unless it is necessary to insert the catheter.
When you insert your catheter, the entire process should be done as sterilely as possible to help you avoid infection. Carefully wash the area where the urine exits your body. This can be done with the cleaning solution or wipes found in a catheter kit if you are using one, or by using baby wipes or soap and water. For women, wiping front to back will help to make the area cleaner. The part of the catheter that will be in your body should be especially clean, and touching this part should always be avoided if possible. If you are using a catheter kit, it may come with gloves. Using the gloves will also help to reduce the risk of infection. By carefully cleaning the insertion area and handling the catheter as little as possible, you will help to ensure that the insertion is as sterile as possible and reduce your risk of infection.
Catheters are typically designed to be used once and thrown away. If you see this symbol on a catheter package, it means that it is only designed to be used once:
Most catheters are single-use because bacteria can easily settle and grow on them after they have been used. If the catheter is used a second time, this bacteria can get inside the bladder and cause a UTI. Some people may try to wash their catheter with soap and water before reusing, but the thin, long tube is very difficult to get completely clean, and infection is always a risk. The safest way to avoid UTIs is to only use each catheter once.
We hope that having a better understanding of how to avoid infection and how to ensure your comfort will help you to become more confident as you start using catheters. We encourage you to check out some of our other content on catheter use to let us help you learn more about catheterization.