Living with a urinary catheter

Travelling long distance

People with a serious medical problem may not want to travel abroad because they don’t want to be too far from their own doctors or from good medical care. Carol, for example, who had endometriosis, feared that her bladder might perforate and that she might need medical attention quickly. However, she liked travelling within the UK, even with a catheter, because it made her feel ‘normal’. She felt perfectly comfortable driving with a leg bag.
 
If they plan in advance, there is no reason why people with a long-term catheter can’t travel long distance, including overseas. Indeed, a catheter may make travelling much easier for some people. Alex, who has multiple sclerosis, said that having a catheter had liberated her and changed her life for the better.
People usually made careful plans for a long trip or holiday. Jennifer, for example, who had a suprapubic catheter, found it useful to keep a drainage bag in her large handbag when going out for the day or on holiday. When she needs to empty her bladder, she discreetly puts her handbag next to her and connects her catheter to the bag. As soon as she gets to a toilet, she can empty the bag or discard it.
 
Stewart had a catheter after prostate surgery and usually used a flip flow valve to empty his bladder, but sometimes for a long journey used a leg bag. On a long coach trip, he emptied the leg bag whenever the driver stopped for a break. Some people used larger bags that could hold more urine when travelling.
Air travel may need particularly careful planning. It is a good idea to get a letter from a doctor explaining that special supplies or equipment may be needed in hand luggage. This letter may also help with security checks. Kenneth still enjoyed overseas holidays. Airport security officers had patted him down and questioned him, but as soon as he said ‘catheter’ they let him through. Rob had also travelled short distances by air. He said that it was fine as long as he found out where the toilets were and used one just before boarding. His wife Pat explained how they managed.
Long haul flights may be particularly difficult for anyone confined to a wheelchair. Plane toilets are small. Annie was paralysed after a riding accident and found long flights difficult because she could not move from her seat.
When travelling, it is best to take supplies of everything that might be needed, such as spare catheters, drainage bags, pads, pants and wet wipes. It is also worth finding out in advance about the facilities available at the destination, including how to find health care and medical supplies. Iain said that he did not usually change his own catheter but took a spare one on holiday so he could change it himself if necessary. Iain described his travel planning:
Ann’s bladder problems started after a hysterectomy followed by radiotherapy for uterine cancer. She had a suprapubic catheter and talks about how she planned her first holiday away from home.
Suitable toilets may be hard to find when travelling. Vicky, paralysed after a skydiving accident, sometimes travelled to London but found it exhausting and quite difficult.
Train journeys can be difficult too. Badg, paralysed through a spinal injury, had had a bad experience on a train without a suitable toilet. He had to empty his bag into a lemonade bottle. The guard wasn’t pleased when asked to empty it. But Badg also said that, with proper preparations, travelling was usually quite easy.
If Badg goes somewhere new and doesn’t know what to expect, he doesn’t drink much before leaving home, and makes sure his bag is completely empty. Then at his destination he takes stock.
 
It is also important to think about suitable clothes. People may find it easier to wear loose clothes with elasticated waists. Some clothes have pockets that hold a leg bag. Rob had thought about buying special clothes for travelling. When he was last in the Mediterranean he would have liked to have worn shorts again but wore long trousers to hide the drainage bag.
Most people we interviewed travelled with family members or a professional carer who could help them if necessary (see Going out locally’).
 
For more information about travelling with a bladder problem see our Resources section.

Last reviewed June 2015.

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