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What Is an External Catheter?

By S . Seegars
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An external catheter is a medical device that helps shuttle urine out of the body in patients who are incontinent or who, for various reasons, are having trouble controlling their bladder function. There are many types of catheters that can be used in a variety of settings, and in a sense an external catheter could be thought of as any catheter or tubing system that is housed primarily outside of the body, in contrast to the many versions that are at least partially internal. While this is theoretically correct, the term is almost always used to refer to a specifically male device that is designed to fit snugly over the penis. In many places the term “condom catheter” is used interchangeably, normally in reference to the device’s shape and overall appearance. There are usually several sizes and tube specifications available, and in most cases they’re very effective while also being discreet. They’re generally considered safe, though problems can arise if the sheath is too tight or if the device isn’t cleaned properly or often enough.

Basic Concept and Main Types

Catheters as a class encompass nearly any sort of tubing or shuttling device intended to move bodily fluids, usually urine, out of the body safely and in a controlled way. The most common sort of catheter is internal, which means that one end of the tubing is fixed inside the body, normally through a small incision, to direct fluids away at their source. Male anatomy makes external shuttling possible provided the catheter catches urine at its point of exit, namely the penis. The penile end is normally a tight-fitting sheath made of silicone, polyvinyl, or rubber latex, and in most cases is very reminiscent of a condom. From there it has a tube and drainage bag attached. In most cases the drainage bag is strapped to the leg and can be worn under the pants.

These sorts of catheters normally come in several varieties. In addition to disposable and reusable catheters, there are one- and two-piece options as well. The self-adhesive, one-piece catheter has adhesive as a part of the sheath and is easier to use and is more secure. The two-piece catheter is applied with either silicone, adhesive strips, spray-on or brush-on adhesives or elasticized tape. In either case, the basic functionality is about the same and each option can be a good choice for men who suffer from urinary incontinence but don’t wish to wear an adult diaper or pad.

Different Size Specifications

It does come in different sizes, and the size is important, because it must fit securely to avoid leakage. Most are disposable, although reusable catheters also are made for active men who suffer from long-term incontinence. Experts usually recommend that catheters be worn for no more than 24-48 hours, and they should be disposed of immediately to prevent contamination.

Special Considerations for Retracted Penises

Another popular type or style is designed primarily for men with retracted or compromised penises. These typically focus on an adhesive urinary pouch, which is a pouch attached to the base of the penis. A related option has an adhesive seal that can be attached to the tip of the glans with a connector that is then attached to a collection system. There also is an inflatable catheter, which is simply a retention ring that is inflated to secure the catheter and then deflated to remove it.

Care, Cleaning, and Common Risks

The catheter should typically be removed daily by soaking the penis with a warm washcloth for 30 seconds. The skin should be inspected so that any problems can be addressed. Many men are able to wear an external catheter for 12-72 hours without issue, but proper care and attention can be a good way to prevent potential problems.

Although the external catheter is a safer option than an internal catheter because there is no tube insertion into the bladder, there still are some common problems that might be experienced. There is a slight chance of infection, although there is a smaller incidence than with an internal catheter. Skin irritation can be caused because of the friction of the catheter rubbing against the penis. There could be a restriction of blood flow to the penis, particularly with sheaths that are too small, and penile obstruction also could occur.

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Discussion Comments
By anon140100 — On Jan 06, 2011

How do you determine what size external catheter to use?

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