Urinary incontinence

Urinary incontinence is the unintentional passing of urine (pee). It's a common problem. Health Trusts in Northern Ireland provide services to the public for help and support with incontinence issues. Seeking help can be the first step towards finding a way to manage the condition.

Symptoms of urinary incontinence

Having urinary incontinence means you pass urine (pee) when you don’t want to.

When and how this happens depends on the type of urinary incontinence you have.

There are several types of the condition, including:

  • stress incontinence – when urine leaks out at times when your bladder is under pressure; for example, when you cough or laugh
  • urge incontinence – when urine leaks as you feel a sudden, intense urge to pass urine, or soon afterwards
  • overflow incontinence (chronic urinary retention) – when you're unable to fully empty your bladder, which causes frequent leaking
  • total incontinence – when your bladder can't store any urine at all, which causes you to pass urine constantly or have frequent leaking

It's also possible to have a mixture of both stress and urge urinary incontinence.

When to seek medical advice

You should seek help if you have any type of urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence is a common problem. Health Trusts in Northern Ireland provide services directly to the public for help and support with incontinence issues, see links below.

You shouldn't feel embarrassed talking about your symptoms. This can also be the first step towards finding a way to manage the problem.

You should see your GP if you have symptoms other than incontinence, such as pain or blood in your urine. They will ask about your symptoms and may carry out a pelvic examination (in women) or rectal examination (in men).

Your GP may also suggest you keep a diary to take a note of how much liquid you drink and how often you have to urinate (go to the toilet).

Causes of urinary incontinence

Below are some of the causes of urinary incontinence, these include:

  • stress incontinence - usually the result of the weakening of, or damage to the muscles used to prevent urination, such as the pelvic floor muscles and the urethral sphincter
  • urge incontinence - usually the result of overactivity of the detrusor muscles, which control the bladder
  • overflow incontinence - often caused by an obstruction or blockage to your bladder, which prevents it emptying fully
  • total incontinence - may be caused by a problem with the bladder from birth, a spinal injury, or a bladder fistula

Certain things can increase the chances of urinary incontinence developing, including:

  • pregnancy and vaginal birth
  • obesity
  • a family history of incontinence
  • increasing age – although incontinence is not an inevitable part of ageing

Treating urinary incontinence

Your GP may suggest some simple measures to see if they help improve your symptoms.

These may include:

  • lifestyle changes – such as losing weight and cutting down on caffeine and alcohol
  • pelvic floor exercises – exercising your pelvic floor muscles by squeezing them, taught by a specialist
  • bladder training – where you learn ways to wait longer between needing to urinate and passing urine, helped by a specialist

Using incontinence products, such as absorbent pads and handheld urinals can also be a help

Medication may be recommended if you're still unable to manage your symptoms.

Surgery may also be considered. The health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment for you.

Preventing urinary incontinence

It's not always possible to prevent urinary incontinence. But there are some steps you can take that may help reduce the chance of it developing.

These include:

Healthy weight

Being obese can increase your risk of developing urinary incontinence. You may therefore be able to lower your risk by maintaining a healthy weight through regular exercise and healthy eating.

Use the healthy weight calculator to see if you are a healthy weight for your height.

Drinking habits

Depending on your particular bladder problem, your GP can advise you about the amount of fluids you should drink.

If you have urinary incontinence, cut down on alcohol and drinks containing caffeine, such as tea, coffee and cola. These can cause your kidneys to produce more urine and irritate your bladder.

The recommended weekly limits for alcohol intake are 14 units for men and women.

A unit of alcohol is roughly half a pint of normal-strength lager or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.

If you have to urinate often during the night, try drinking less in the hours before you go to bed. You should make sure you still drink enough fluids during the day.

Pelvic floor exercises

Being pregnant and giving birth can weaken the muscles that control the flow of urine from your bladder. If you're pregnant, strengthening your pelvic floor muscles may help prevent urinary incontinence.

Men may also benefit from strengthening their pelvic floor muscles with pelvic floor exercises.

Find out more about pelvic floor exercises.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published March 2018

This page is due for review February 2020

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