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Flying with Intermittent Catheters: Relax After Reading These Must-know Tips

Flying with catheters shouldn’t make you nervous, and this article will help you relax by covering everything you need to know: TSA rules on catheter, taking catheters through airport security, what goes into a travel catheter kit, safe and hygienic catheterization practices on the plane, and other precautions you need to take to have a great journey.  

This is a two-part series on traveling with intermittent catheters. This article covers flying with intermittent catheters, the next article will cover driving with catheters. 

For the next few minutes, let’s go through all the things you need to know from before you go on the plane to after you’ve landed. 

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

TSA Rules on catheters: can you take catheters on a plane? 

Yes, you absolutely can. Intermittent catheters are necessary medical devices, and you can take it on the plane in your carry-on or checked baggage.  

However, if you are bringing lubricant packets or hydrophilic catheters pre-packed with sterile water in your carry-on, you need to comply with TSA’s rule on liquids

TSA rules state that the maximum amount of liquid you are allowed to bring in a carry-on is 3.4 ounces (100 ml). If the liquids are separated into individual small containers, the containers must be able to fit in one quart-size resealable bag. 

If you are going on a long-haul flight, remember that if you are already bringing other liquid toiletries, you may not be able to fit all the hydrophilic catheters (that are packed with water) you need into one quart-sized bag.

For an alternative catheter that is also pre-lubricated, consider these travel catheters that are pre-coated with silicone oil, which has been found by multiple studies (studies 1, 2, 3) to have antibacterial effects. The silicone oil lubricant gives you an extra layer of protection against contracting bacterial infections on an aircraft. 

It is also not ideal to pack a lot of hydrophilic catheters into your checked luggage. First of all, water takes up precious space and increases the weight of your luggage—be aware of that hefty overweight fee. Secondly, airlines are not known for handling luggage in the most gentle manner, so there’s a risk of water leaking out of the packaging. If you must pack hydrophilic catheters, consider putting them in a leak-free plastic container. Otherwise, check out this silicone-oil coated, small catheter

straight female intermittent catheter

Taking catheters through airport security

Before going through airport security, remember to pack your lubricants or your hydrophilic catheters with water pouches into one quart-size resealable bag. At the security check line, take out the quart-sized bag from your luggage and place it in a separate screening bin.

If you are flying with catheters for the first time, don’t be nervous. As long as you follow the TSA’s rules on liquids, you should have no problem. 

Usually, your carry-on baggage won’t be singled out for additional screening, but if it does, it will be handy to have a doctor’s note explaining that the catheters are necessary medical devices for your condition. However, you are not required to have it. 

If you do decide to get a doctor’s note, make a copy of it so you can put one in your checked luggage next to your catheters, in case your checked luggage is pulled for additional screening. 

If you are dreading the moment a TSA agent opens your baggage, takes out the catheters, and questions you about them in public, you can choose these discreetly packaged and designed catheters so not every passer-by will recognize it.  

travel catheter samples

If you are using catheters as a result of a disability, if you are wearing an external medical device such as an ostomy bag or an indwelling catheter, or if you want to inform TSA of the catheters in your carry-on, you can fill in and print out this TSA notification card and hand it to a TSA agent. 

Handing over this card is not mandated and doesn’t exempt you from screening, but it keeps TSA agents informed on your special situation, and they may grant you alternative screening procedures if needed. 

Preparing a travel catheter kit

Pack a bag big enough to contain all of your catheter essentials for the duration of your plane trip but small enough to place under the seat in front of you so you don’t need to get it from the cabinet.

You travel catheter kit should include:

  • The number of catheters you need from the moment you step into the airport to the moment you settle in at the new location. Bring extra catheters if you are planning to have a few drinks on the trip, and for possible delays. 
  • If you are using dry catheters, bring enough lubricants plus a few extra 
  • Bring disposable antiseptic wipes. Remember to always thoroughly clean your urethra opening before catheterization 
  • Bring a pack of clean gloves—because airplane tap water had been found by EPA to be contaminated with bacteria, washing your hands may not be enough to keep them clean. 
  • Use non-touch, silicone-oil-coated catheters to avoid the worry of catheter contamination and the hassle of lubricating your catheter in a cramp, turbulent bathroom
  • In a female travel catheter kit, you may wish to include a small mirror if you have trouble finding your urethra. 

What to consider when self-catheterizing on a plane 

1. Water contamination 

If you are using hydrophilic catheters that are not pre-packed with water pouches, please do not lubricate them with tap water on the aircraft. As mentioned before, EPA has found bacteria in the water and noted that aircraft water tanks can become breeding grounds for bacteria (click here to find out more about specific airlines). You would likely see signs in the bathroom asking you not to drink the tap water. 

If the water is not safe to go into your stomach, it is absolutely not safe to go onto your catheter. In fact, what’s safe for your stomach isn’t necessarily safe for your urinary tract either. Your stomach contains acid that can kill many forms of bacteria, whereas your urinary tract is defenseless to infections. To hydrate your catheter, ask for or buy bottled water from an air steward(ess).

If you are heading to a foreign country where the water quality is questionable, please also use reputable brands of bottled water to hydrate your hydrophilic catheter. 

To avoid the hassle of securing safe water and the trouble of manually lubricating a dry catheter with K-Y jelly, check out these ready to use, silicone-oil-coated, compact catheters

2. Turbulence 

Since aircraft are subjected to sudden turbulence, you have to be extra careful not to hurt yourself using a catheter. First, don’t go to the bathroom when the seat belt sign is on. This one is obvious, just follow general airplane safety rules. 

If you are in the middle of inserting a catheter and turbulence occurs, cease movements and hold the catheter in place until turbulence passes. This is because, when your hands and body are jolted, the angle of insertion might change and you might create a false passage in your urethra.

For women, sit on the toilet seat to catheterize. Sitting grounds you better than standing, which helps you avoid being thrown off during sudden turbulence. 

For men, if you are using a closed system catheter with a urine bag, you can also sit while you catheterize. Otherwise, stand firm and lean against something while you catheterize

Both men and women can choose a catheter with a drainage control feature, which allows you to control when the urine drains from the catheter. 

3. Catheter contamination 

Don’t let your exposed catheter tube touch anything. Airplane bathrooms are small and sudden turbulence can jolt the catheter to touch surrounding objects like the walls, your legs, or your hands. If the catheter is touched by anything non-sterile, you have to use a new one. 

To avoid this, use a catheter whose entire tube is encased in a protective plastic sleeve, which minimizes the chance of the tube being touched. 

Bring the entire catheter kit with you to the bathroom, so that if you need another catheter after the first one is contaminated, you don’t have to go back to your seat and wait in the bathroom line again.  

4. Control fluid intake and plan a bathroom schedule

Using catheters on the plane is bothersome, but you don’t want to drink less fluid to avoid bathroom trips, as this increases your chance of getting a UTI. However, you don’t want to drink so much fluid that you have to go all the time. Drink the amount that your doctor has recommended for your day-to-day life. If you have trouble with staying hydrated, here are some tips.

Have a bathroom schedule planned according to your fluid intake. If you are planning to urinate every 4 hours and see a long line at the bathroom half an hour before, maybe you should start standing in line. Set up phone alarms to help yourself stay on schedule. 

5. Book an aisle seat

If possible, book an aisle seat to have easy access to the bathroom. 

6. Consider getting insurance for your checked baggage

The cost of catheters adds up. If you packed a lot of catheters into your checked baggage and your baggage was lost, you might have to pay out of pocket to buy new catheters, since medical insurance usually only covers a certain number of catheters per month (please check with your insurance representative on their company policy). If your catheters do get lost, the reimbursement can cushion the blow.

7. Disperse your catheter stash

If all of the catheters are in your checked luggage and your checked luggage is lost or delayed, you’ll be stranded in another state or a foreign country without catheters to use. 

Since intermittent catheters are not available over the counter, and it can take a day or two for your DME or catheter company to send you new supplies, you should disperse your catheter stash. Pack some of your catheters in your friend’s and family’s luggage as well as pack some into your carry-on.

8. Get a portable, travel catheter

A travel catheter is optimized for travel. It is compact and hassle-free, giving you full control of your work trips or holiday getaways. 

If you are looking for a great travel catheter, check out CompactCath

CompactCath Classic and CompactCath Lite come in small tear-drop packages that fit discreetly into your back pocket, purse, and carry-on. 

Emerged out of Stanford as the brainchild of a team of physicians, mechanical engineers, and MBAs, CompactCath is FDA-cleared in 2014, won two iF product design awards (2016, 2017), was covered by CNN Money,  holds six patents, and won the BioDesign Spectrum grant and the LPCH Pediatric Innovation grant.

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