External Catheters

External Catheters Demystified: What You Need to Know

Angela Breslin, RN
June 20, 2024
min read

Understanding External Catheters

If you've ever wondered "what is an external catheter?", you're not alone. Let's break it down simply:

  • External catheters are devices used to manage urinary incontinence.
  • They collect urine without the need for internal insertion.
  • Two common types are condom catheters for men and specialized devices for women.

Urinary incontinence is a common issue, affecting millions of people, especially with conditions like diabetes or urological issues. External catheters offer a practical and less invasive solution, improving comfort and reducing risks associated with traditional catheters.

In the sections ahead, we'll explore different types of external catheters, their benefits, and how to use them effectively.

What is an External Catheter?

An external catheter is a non-invasive device used to manage urinary incontinence. Unlike traditional catheters that require insertion into the urethra, external catheters collect urine from the outside of the body. They are designed for comfort and ease of use, making them a preferred option for many individuals.

Types of External Catheters

1. Condom Catheters

Condom catheters, also known as male external catheters, are designed for men. They fit over the penis like a condom and are connected to a urine collection bag via a tube. These catheters come in various sizes and materials, such as latex and silicone, to cater to individual needs. Silicone is often preferred due to its hypoallergenic properties.

2. Female External Catheters

Female external catheters are designed to fit the female anatomy. One type covers the vulva and uses a soft, absorbent pad that drains urine into a collection bag. Another type uses a curved tube with absorbent material, running from the pubic bone to the buttocks. This type is typically used when the person is sitting or lying down.

3. Non-Invasive Options

Non-invasive external catheters are designed to be worn on the body without internal insertion. They are often referred to as "bodyworn products." These devices are particularly useful for individuals with limited mobility or those who prefer not to use indwelling catheters.

How External Catheters Work

Urine Collection

External catheters collect urine without the need for internal insertion. The urine flows from the catheter into a collection bag, which can be attached to the leg or placed beside the bed. This setup allows for discreet and convenient urine management.

Connection to Drainage Bags

Once the external catheter is securely in place, it is connected to a drainage bag via a tube. The bag can be easily emptied when full, ensuring continuous urine collection without discomfort or leakage. Some advanced systems even use sensors and suction mechanisms to enhance urine flow and collection.


One of the main advantages of external catheters is that they are non-insertive. This reduces the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and other complications associated with indwelling catheters. Proper hygiene and regular maintenance are essential to ensure the effectiveness and safety of these devices.

In the sections ahead, we'll delve deeper into the benefits of using external catheters, how to properly use them, and how to address common concerns and complications.

Benefits of Using External Catheters

Comparing External and Indwelling Catheters

External catheters offer several advantages over indwelling catheters, particularly in terms of comfort and safety. External catheters are less invasive, which means they don't need to be inserted into the bladder. This significantly reduces the risk of urethral injuries and discomfort.

Reduced UTI Risk is another major benefit. According to research, external catheters are associated with a lower incidence of Catheter-Associated Urinary Tract Infections (CAUTIs). Since these catheters are not inserted into the bladder, the risk of introducing bacteria into the urinary tract is minimized. Studies have shown that using an external catheter can reduce UTI incidence by up to 80% compared to indwelling catheters.

urinary catheter - what is an external catheter

In terms of comfort, external catheters are designed to fit snugly and securely. They are typically made of soft materials like silicone, which reduces skin irritation. These catheters can be worn discreetly under clothing, allowing users to go about their daily activities without worry.

Ideal Candidates for External Catheters

External catheters are especially beneficial for individuals dealing with urinary incontinence. This condition results in the involuntary leakage of urine, which can be managed effectively with external catheters. Unlike absorbent pads or disposable underwear, external catheters offer a more hygienic and convenient solution.

People with mobility issues are also ideal candidates. If you have difficulty moving around due to a medical condition or recent surgery, an external catheter can make managing urinary output easier. These devices are simple to use and can be attached and removed without the need for extensive movement.

For those who experience nighttime frequency, external catheters provide a convenient way to manage urine output while sleeping. This can significantly improve sleep quality by reducing the need to wake up frequently to use the bathroom.

In the upcoming sections, we will explore how to properly use an external catheter, including application techniques and daily maintenance practices. This will ensure you get the most out of your device while minimizing any potential complications.

How to Properly Use an External Catheter

Step-by-Step Application

Applying an external catheter correctly is essential for comfort and effectiveness. Here's a simple guide to help you through the process:

1. Preparation is Key- Wash Your Hands: Start by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water.- Clean the Area: Gently clean your penis with mild soap and warm water. Make sure it is completely dry before proceeding.

2. Application Techniques- Inspect the Skin: Look for any signs of irritation, sores, or damage. If you notice any, consult your healthcare provider before applying the catheter.- Apply Sealant: If using a skin-prep sealant, apply it to the penis and let it dry. This helps protect the skin and ensures better adhesion.- Roll On the Catheter: Slowly roll the catheter onto the penis, leaving a small space at the tip to avoid pressure on the urethra. Hold the catheter in place for 10 to 20 seconds to allow any adhesive to dry.- Secure Attachment: If the catheter has a strap, wrap it around the base of the penis loosely enough to allow blood flow but tight enough to keep the catheter in place.

3. Connecting to a Collection Bag- Attach the Tube: Connect the catheter to the drainage tube and then to the collection bag.- Strap the Bag: Secure the collection bag to your leg below the knee. Walk around a bit to ensure everything feels comfortable and secure.

Maintenance and Care

Proper maintenance and hygiene practices are crucial for the longevity and effectiveness of your external catheter.

Daily Maintenance

1. Cleanliness- Wash Hands and Penis: Always wash your hands and the penis thoroughly before and after handling the catheter.- Inspect Daily: Check for any signs of irritation or damage to the skin.

2. Changing Catheters- Daily Change: Replace the catheter every 24 hours to maintain hygiene and prevent infections.- Gentle Removal: Remove the old catheter by rolling it off gently. Use an adhesive remover if necessary to avoid skin damage.

3. Cleaning Bags- Empty the Bag: Drain the collection bag when it’s about half full to avoid leaks.- Rinse Thoroughly: After emptying, rinse the bag with water, shake, and dump the water. Mix a solution of 1-part bleach to 10-parts water, fill the bag halfway, and let it sit for 20 minutes. Rinse again with warm water and leave it to air dry.

Skin Care- Inspect for Irritation: Daily inspection of the skin can help catch any irritation early.- Use Mild Soaps: Clean the area with mild soap and warm water. Ensure it's completely dry before applying a new catheter.- Apply Barrier Cream: If recommended by your healthcare provider, use a barrier cream to protect the skin from irritation.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your external catheter is used effectively and comfortably. Proper application and maintenance will help minimize potential complications and improve your overall experience.

In the next section, we will address common concerns and complications related to external catheters, including issues like size fit, skin irritation, and leakage. This will help you troubleshoot and manage any problems that may arise.

Addressing Common Concerns and Complications

Using an external catheter can be straightforward, but sometimes issues arise. Here, we address common concerns and complications to help you manage them effectively.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Size Fit:Choosing the right size is crucial. An ill-fitting catheter can lead to leakage or discomfort. Measure accurately and consult sizing charts. If you notice leakage or discomfort, try a different size.

Skin Irritation:Skin irritation is common, especially if the catheter is too tight or the adhesive is too strong. Use hypoallergenic materials like silicone to minimize irritation. Applying a barrier cream can also help protect the skin.

Leakage:Leakage can occur if the catheter isn't fitted properly or if the adhesive isn't strong enough. Ensure the catheter is the right size and that the adhesive is applied correctly. If leakage persists, consult your healthcare provider for alternative solutions.

Adhesive Problems:Sometimes, the adhesive may not stick well or can cause skin reactions. If you experience adhesive problems, try using an adhesive remover or a different type of adhesive. Wrapping a warm washcloth around the area before removal can help loosen the adhesive.

Incorrect Sizing:Incorrect sizing can lead to multiple issues, including leakage and discomfort. Always follow the manufacturer's sizing guide and consult your healthcare provider if you're unsure. Regularly check the fit to ensure it remains comfortable and effective.

Infection Prevention:While external catheters have a lower risk of causing urinary tract infections (UTIs) compared to indwelling catheters, they are not completely risk-free. Maintain good hygiene by cleaning the area regularly and changing the catheter daily. Using liquid barriers can also help prevent infections.

When to Consult a Healthcare Provider

Symptoms to Watch:Be vigilant for signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, or a foul odor. Pain or discomfort can also indicate a problem. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

Professional Advice:If you're experiencing persistent issues like leakage, skin irritation, or adhesive problems, seek professional advice. Your healthcare provider can recommend alternative products or techniques to improve your experience.

Regular Check-Ups:Regular check-ups with your healthcare provider are essential. They can inspect the catheter and surrounding skin, ensuring everything is in good condition. Regular monitoring helps catch potential issues early, preventing more serious complications.

By addressing these common concerns and complications, you can ensure a more comfortable and effective experience with your external catheter. In the next section, we will answer frequently asked questions to provide even more clarity on using these devices.

Frequently Asked Questions about External Catheters

What is the purpose of an external catheter?

An external catheter is designed to manage urinary incontinence by collecting urine outside the body. This helps people who have trouble controlling their bladder. External catheters are non-invasive and fit over the genital area, directing urine into a collection bag. This reduces the need for frequent changes of absorbent pads or underwear and helps maintain dignity and comfort.

How do you insert an external catheter?

Inserting an external catheter is straightforward and doesn't involve inserting anything into your body. Here's a quick step-by-step guide:

  1. Wash your hands: Cleanliness is crucial to prevent infections.
  2. Clean the area: Wash the genital area with mild soap and water, then dry thoroughly.
  3. Measure and choose the right size: For men, measure the circumference of the penis at the base. For women, ensure the external catheter fits snugly over the vulva.
  4. Apply the catheter: For condom catheters, roll it over the penis like a condom, leaving a small space at the tip. For female external catheters, position it over the vulva.
  5. Secure the catheter: Use the provided adhesive or straps to ensure a snug fit. For men, some catheters come with self-adhesive properties.
  6. Connect the drainage bag: Attach the catheter to the urine collection bag, which can be strapped to your leg.

external catheter application - what is an external catheter

What is the difference between an indwelling catheter and an external catheter?

Indwelling catheters (also known as Foley catheters) are inserted directly into the bladder through the urethra. They are often used for long-term urinary drainage and require regular maintenance and monitoring.

External catheters, on the other hand, are worn outside the body. Condom catheters for men fit over the penis, while female external catheters cover the vulva. External catheters are less invasive and generally have a lower risk of causing urinary tract infections (UTIs) compared to indwelling catheters. They are ideal for individuals who need a non-invasive solution for urinary incontinence.

Key Differences:

  • Invasiveness: Indwelling catheters are inserted into the body; external catheters are worn outside.
  • Risk of Infection: External catheters typically have a lower risk of causing UTIs.
  • Comfort: Many users find external catheters more comfortable and easier to manage.
  • Usage Duration: Indwelling catheters can be used for longer periods, while external catheters are usually changed daily.

comparison of catheters - what is an external catheter

By understanding these differences, you can choose the best option for your needs. In the next section, we'll dive deeper into the benefits of using external catheters.


Managing urinary incontinence is a long-term journey, and external catheters can be a vital part of that process. These devices offer a less invasive, more comfortable alternative to indwelling catheters. By reducing the risk of infections and providing ease of use, they can significantly improve your quality of life.

At ProMed DME, we are committed to supporting you every step of the way. Our comprehensive range of urological supplies ensures you have access to the best products tailored to your needs. We work with leading manufacturers to provide high-quality external catheters, and our customer service is unmatched.

Our team is here to help you with everything from product selection to insurance verification. We understand that managing urinary incontinence can be challenging, and we strive to make the process as smooth as possible.

If you have any questions or need personalized advice, our customer advocates are just a phone call away. We also offer resources and guides to help you learn how to properly use and maintain your external catheter.

For more information and to explore our range of external catheters, visit our external catheters page.

You don't have to navigate this journey alone. We're here to provide the support and products you need for effective long-term management.

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