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What is a 3-Way Catheter?

By Erica Stratton
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A 3-way catheter is a style of catheter that ends in three separate prongs instead of a single or double tube. It is used to treat bladder infections and other conditions that require a medical professional to introduce something into the bladder as well as drain it. Since these catheters are a style of Foley catheter, which won't slip out, they are sometimes known as 3-way Foley catheters.

This type of catheter ends in three separate tubes — the middle tube has a much larger opening, while the ones on either side narrow down and can be capped off. The design was specially created for those who need to have their bladders flushed out due to blood clots or infections. In order to stand up to the stresses of the liquid that will be moving through it, the catheter is reinforced inside with a nylon coil. A Foley catheter is different from others in that it has a small balloon attached to the end that is inserted into the bladder. Once it is inserted, the balloon can be inflated so that the device remains securely placed.

When performing continuous bladder irrigation (CBI), the 3-way catheter is threaded up the patient's urethra and into the bladder. After the balloon is inflated, an irrigation bag full of saline is attached to one of the narrower tubes and hung on an intravenous, or IV, pole. This allows gravity to push the saline though the catheter. The saline flows through the catheter, into the bladder, and out again through the other two tubes. The wider center tube allows for blood clots and other matter to pass through the catheter without plugging up the overall flow.

A 3-way catheter can also be used to give a patient a full bladder without having to wait for him to drink water. Using the same method, saline is introduced into the bladder using one prong while the other two remain capped. A full bladder shows up more clearly on a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan, and therefore is useful when a medical professional is trying to make a diagnosis.

Like all catheters, 3-way devices can be used on both men and women. Though it has been proven in many cases to be a useful tool for those with bladder problems, catheters also carry the risk of infection. When they are left inside the bladder and urethra for days or weeks, they can irritate the tissue, become infected, or develop a "biofilm" that prevents it from adequately draining. For this reason, a 3-way catheter should be replaced often with a new, sterile catheter for long-term drainage.

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Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Aug 31, 2012

@browncoat - Well, they might be uncomfortable, just generally they are used to irrigate the bladder when the patient has a serious infection or something else wrong. And frankly, if you've ever had a serious bladder infection or a problem with your prostate you would be glad to have a catheter inserted in order to get rid of it.

It can honestly feel like you're passing broken glass, when you can get anything out at all. For a lot of people being able to pass water through the catheter is the first release they've had a long time.

It can be painful, but usually only when they are inserting it. Once it's in there it's not such a big deal. And a lot of people have to live with them, unfortunately, so they make the best of it.

By browncoat — On Aug 30, 2012

I have an absolute horror of having to have a catheter put in. My grandmother needed one put in while she was in hospital and I know she thought it was the worst of all the treatments they did to her. It was embarrassing and painful and just plain uncomfortable.

What's more, it made her feel trapped. Once you've got something like that in you, you can never just get up and walk out, particularly since they inflate that little balloon in order to keep it from moving or dropping out.

I think I would almost rather just stay sick than get a catheter tube inserted.

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