Search Encyclopedia:    
List of Topics Print This Page

Urinary incontinence


Urinary (or bladder) incontinence happens when you are not able to keep urine from leaking out of your urethra, the tube that carries urine out of your body from your bladder. You may leak urine from time to time. Or, you may not be able to hold any urine.

The three main types of urinary incontinence are:

  • Stress incontinence -- occurs during certain activities like coughing, sneezing, laughing, or exercise.
  • Urge incontinence -- involves a strong, sudden need to urinate. Then the bladder squeezes and you lose urine. You don't have enough time after you feel the need to urinate to get to the bathroom before you do urinate.
  • Overflow incontinence -- occurs when the bladder cannot empty. This leads to dribbling.
  • Mixed incontinence -- involves more than one type of urinary incontinence.

Bowel incontinence is when you are unable to control the passage of stool. It is not covered in this article.

Women are more likely to have urinary incontinence than men.The correct answer is true. Urinary incontinence is more common in older women, though anyone can have it. It happens when you can't control your bladder and urine leaks out. See your doctor if you have any trouble controlling your urine. Which type of incontinence is caused by weak pelvic muscles?The correct answer is stress incontinence. When these muscles are weak, they can't prevent urine from flowing out when there's pressure on your abdomen. This is why stress incontinence happens during activities like sneezing, laughing, coughing, and exercise. Urge incontinence is the sudden, strong need to urinate.The correct answer is true. Urge incontinence happens because the bladder muscles squeeze at the wrong time. You may not have enough time to get to the bathroom before you urinate. If this ever happens to you, see your doctor. Incontinence never gets better without treatment.The correct answer is false. Sometimes incontinence clears up on its own. Sometimes this happens when it's caused by weight gain, urinary tract infection, medicines, pregnancy, or prostate infection. Ask your doctor for help if your incontinence doesn't go away.Losing weight can help reduce stress incontinence.The correct answer is true. Other changes can also help. These may include drinking less fluid, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and avoiding jumping and running. Work with your doctor to find changes that help you.Drinking less water helps relieve urge incontinence.The correct answer is false. When you have urge incontinence, drinking more water can help reduce leakage and may lessen odor. It helps to drink small amounts of water during the day, no more than eight ounces at one time. Stop drinking two hours before bedtime. Spicy foods can cause incontinence.The correct answer is true. Spicy foods can irritate your bladder and cause incontinence. Other foods you may want to avoid include carbonated drinks, caffeine, alcohol, and citrus fruits and juices. Incontinence can irritate your skin.The correct answer is true. The skin around your urethra may get irritated if it's often exposed to urine. To prevent skin irritation, clean the area right after you urinate. Ask your doctor about special skin cleansers that will not dry out your skin or other ways to protect your skin. Medicine is the best treatment for urge incontinence.The correct answer is false. There are many treatments for urge incontinence, including bladder retraining and surgery. Which one works best for you depends on your symptoms and how much they affect your daily life. Talk to your doctor to find the best treatment for you.Training the pelvic floor muscles can help stress incontinence.The correct answer is true. Stress incontinence happens when the pelvic muscles are weak. This can happen from childbirth, injury, or surgery. Exercising these muscles can help control urine leakage. Ask your doctor about exercises to try. Overflow incontinence is most common in men.The correct answer is true. Overflow incontinence occurs when the bladder can't empty fully. It's often caused by an enlarged prostate. The most common symptoms are urine dribbling, frequent urination, and a sensation that your bladder does not empty fully. Talk to your doctor if you have these symptoms.
Alternative Names:

Loss of bladder control; Uncontrollable urination; Urination - uncontrollable; Incontinence - urinary

Home Care:

See your health care provider for tests and a treatment plan. What type of treatment you get depends on what caused your incontinence and what type you have.

The following methods are used to strengthen the muscles of your pelvic floor:

  • Bladder retraining -- You urinate on a schedule, whether or not you feel a need to go. In between bathroom visits, you try to wait until the next scheduled time. At first, you may need to schedule urination every hour. Gradually, you can increase by 1/2 hour at a time until you only urinate once every 3 - 4 hours without leaking.
  • Kegel exercises -- squeeze the pelvic floor muscles for 10 seconds, then relax them for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times. Do these exercises three times a day. You can do Kegel exercises any time, in any place.

For urine leaks, wear absorbent pads or undergarments. There are many well-designed products that no one else will notice.

Other treatments include:

  • Keep your bowel movements regular to avoid constipation. Try increasing the fiber in your diet.
  • Quit smoking to reduce coughing and bladder irritation. Smoking also increases your risk for bladder cancer.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as coffee, which can stimulate your bladder.
  • Lose weight if you need to.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that may irritate your bladder, like spicy foods, carbonated drinks, and citrus fruits and juices.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under good control.
For more information about treating urinary incontinence, see also:

If you have overflow incontinence or cannot empty your bladder completely, you may need to use a catheter. For more information on catheter use, see also:

  • Indwelling catheter care
  • Self-catheterization - female
  • Self-catheterization - male
Call your health care provider if:

Talk to your health care provider about incontinence. Health care providers who treat incontinence are called gynecologists and urologists. They can find the cause and recommend treatments.

Call your local emergency number (such as 911) or go to an emergency room if you suddenly lose control over urine and you have:

  • Difficulty talking, walking, or speaking
  • Sudden weakness, numbness, or tingling in an arm or leg
  • Loss of vision
  • Loss of consciousness or confusion
  • Loss of bowel control

Call your health care provider if:

  • You have been constipated for more than 1 week
  • You have:
    • Cloudy or bloody urine
    • Dribbling
    • Frequent or urgent need to urinate
    • Pain or burning when you urinate
    • Trouble starting your urine flow
  • You are taking medicines that may cause incontinence -- but do NOT change or stop taking any medicines without talking to your doctor.
  • You are over 60 years old and your incontinence is new, especially if you are also having trouble with your memory or caring for yourself
  • You have the urge to go often, but are only passing small amounts of urine
  • Your bladder feels full even after you have just urinated
  • Incontinence lasts for more than 2 weeks, even though you are doing exercises to strengthen your pelvic muscles
What to expect at your health care provider's office:

Your health care provider will ask about your medical history. You will have a physical exam focusing on your abdomen, genitals, pelvis, rectum, and nervous system.

Your health care provider may ask questions such as:

  • How long have you had a problem with incontinence?
  • How many times do you leak urine each day?
  • Do you know that you need to urinate before you leak?
  • Do you know right away that you have passed urine?
  • Are you wet most of the day?
  • Do you wear protective garments in case of accidents? How often do you wear them?
  • Do you avoid social situations in case of accidents?
  • Have you had urinary tract infections in the past? Do you think that you may have one now?
  • Is it harder to control your urine when you cough, sneeze, strain, or laugh?
  • Is it harder to control your urine when you run, jump, or walk?
  • Is your incontinence worse when you sit up or stand?
  • Are you constipated? For how long have you been constipated?
  • Is there anything you do to reduce or prevent accidents?
  • Have you ever been treated for this condition before? Did treatment help?
  • Have you tried pelvic floor exercises (Kegels)? Do they help?
  • What procedures, surgeries, or injuries have you had?
  • What medications do you take?
  • Do you drink coffee? How much?
  • Do you drink alcohol? How much?
  • Do you smoke? How much each day?
  • Do you have diabetes or a family history of diabetes?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

Tests that may be performed include:

  • Cystoscopy (viewing the inside of the bladder)
  • Post void residual (PVR) to measure the amount of urine left after you urinate
  • Urinalysis
  • Urine culture to check for infection
  • Urodynamic studies (to measure pressure and urine flow)
  • Uroflow (to measure the pattern of urine flow)

Gerber GS, Brendler CB. Evaluation of the urologic patient: History, physical examination, and urinalysis. In: Wein AJ, ed. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 3.

Resnick NM. Incontinence. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 25.

Deng DY. Urinary incontinence in women. Med Clin North Am. 2011;95:101-109.

Review Date: 9/19/2011
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; and Louis S. Liou, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Urology, Department of Surgery, Boston University School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

   View History
  Urinary incontinence



About UPHS   Contact Us   Site Map   Privacy Statement   Legal Disclaimer   Terms of Use

The University of Pennsylvania Health System, Philadelphia, PA 1-800-789-PENN © 2015, The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania