Discusses urinary incontinence in women. Looks at types of incontinence, including stress and urge incontinence. Covers causes and symptoms. Discusses treatment with medicine or surgery. Offers home treatment and prevention tips.
Urinary Incontinence in Women
What is urinary incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is the accidental release of urine. It can happen when you
cough, laugh, sneeze, or jog. Or you may have a sudden need to go to the
bathroom but can't get there in time. Bladder control problems are very common,
especially among older adults. They usually don't cause major health problems,
but they can be embarrassing.
Incontinence can be a short-term
problem caused by a
urinary tract infection, a medicine, or constipation.
It gets better when you treat the problem that is causing it. But this topic
focuses on ongoing urinary incontinence.
There are two
main kinds of urinary incontinence. Some women—especially older women—have both.
Stress incontinence occurs when you
sneeze, cough, laugh, jog, or do other things that put
pressure on your bladder. It is the most common type of bladder control problem
Urge incontinence happens when you have a
strong need to urinate but can't reach the toilet in time. This can happen even
when your bladder is holding only a small amount of urine. Some women may have
no warning before they accidentally leak urine. Other women may leak urine when
they drink water or when they hear or touch running water. Overactive bladder
is a kind of urge incontinence. But not everyone with overactive bladder leaks
Problems or damage either in the urinary tract or in the nerves
that control urination.
Stress incontinence can be caused by
childbirth, weight gain, or other conditions that stretch the pelvic floor muscles. When these muscles can't support your bladder properly, the bladder
drops down and pushes against the vagina. You can't tighten the muscles that
close off the
urethra. So urine may leak because of the extra
pressure on the bladder when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise, or do other
Urge incontinence is caused by an overactive bladder
muscle that pushes urine out of the bladder. It may be caused by irritation of
the bladder, emotional stress, or brain conditions such as
Parkinson's disease or
stroke. Many times doctors don't know what causes it.
What are the symptoms?
main symptom is the accidental release of urine.
If you have stress incontinence, you may leak a small to medium
amount of urine when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise, or do similar
If you have urge incontinence, you may feel a sudden urge
to urinate and the need to urinate often. With this type of bladder control
problem, you may leak a larger amount of urine that can soak your clothes or
run down your legs.
If you have mixed incontinence, you may have
symptoms of both problems.
How is urinary incontinence diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about what and
how much you drink. He or she will also ask how often and how much you urinate
and leak. It may help to keep track of these things using a bladder diary for 3 or 4 days before you
see your doctor.
Your doctor will examine you and may do some
simple tests to look for the cause of your bladder control problem. If your
doctor thinks it may be caused by more than one problem, you will likely have
How is it treated?
Treatments are different for each person. They depend on the type of incontinence you have and how much it affects your life. After your doctor knows what has caused the incontinence, your treatment may include exercises, bladder training, medicines, a pessary, or a combination of these. Some women may need surgery.
There are also some things you can do at home. In many cases, these lifestyle changes can be enough to control incontinence.
Cut back on caffeine drinks, such as coffee and tea. Also cut back on fizzy drinks like soda pop. And don't drink more than one alcohol drink a day.
Eat foods high in fiber to help avoid constipation.
Don't smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
When these muscles can't support your bladder well, the bladder
drops down and pushes against the vagina. Then you can't tighten the muscles that
usually close off the
urethra. So urine may leak because of the extra
pressure on the bladder when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise, or do other
This is the most common type of urinary incontinence in women.
A chronic cough from smoking can make
stress incontinence worse.
Urge incontinence is caused when the bladder muscle involuntarily
contracts and pushes urine out of the bladder. Many times doctors don't know what causes this. But sometimes the cause is:
Brain conditions such as
Parkinson's disease or
Overactive bladder is a kind of urge incontinence.
But not everyone with overactive bladder leaks urine. For more information, see
Other types of incontinence
Less common types of urinary incontinence have other causes. These types
The main symptom of
urinary incontinence is a problem controlling
Symptoms of stress incontinence:
Involuntary release of urine, especially when you cough, sneeze, or laugh
Leaking a small to moderate amount of urine
Symptoms of urge incontinence:
Frequent and sudden uncontrollable need to urinate
May leak a moderate to large amount of urine, although a small amount is possible
is common for a woman to have symptoms of both types of incontinence. This is called mixed incontinence.
Urinary incontinence usually starts gradually and
slowly becomes worse. As it gets worse, a woman may:
Avoid going out in public because of embarrassment.
Become less active.
Have physical problems caused by frequent urine contact. These problems may include
irritation of the groin area and more frequent
urinary tract infections.
Treating the cause of incontinence often gets rid of
or controls these problems.
Some bladder problems are temporary. For example, you may have a urinary tract infection that causes incontinence, but the problem goes away after the infection is cured.
What Increases Your Risk
Sometimes several things
combine to cause
urinary incontinence. For example, a woman may have
had multiple childbirths, be older, and have a severe cough because of
chronic bronchitis or smoking. All of these might
contribute to her incontinence problem.
Physical conditions that
make urinary incontinence more likely include:
Medicines and foods that may make urinary incontinence worse include:
Caffeinated and carbonated drinks, such as coffee, tea, and soda pop.
Prescription medicines that increase urine production (such as diuretics) or relax the bladder (such as anticholinergics and antidepressants).
When To Call a Doctor
Call your doctor if:
urinary incontinence that begins suddenly. This is called acute
incontinence. It is often caused by urinary tract problems or
medicines and can be easily corrected.
The involuntary release of urine is enough of a problem that you
need to wear an absorbent pad, or if incontinence interferes with your life in
Don't be embarrassed to discuss urinary incontinence with
your doctor. Urinary incontinence is not an inevitable result of
aging. Most women with incontinence can be helped or cured.
If you have urinary incontinence that develops
slowly, you may be able to control the problem yourself. If home
treatment is not effective, or if incontinence interferes with your lifestyle,
ask your doctor about other treatments.
Who to see
Health professionals who can diagnose and treat
urinary incontinence include:
Pad test, which can help show how much urine is leaking. You are given an absorbent pad that has been weighed. You wear the pad until urine leaks, and then you return the pad to be weighed again. The increased weight of the pad gives an estimate of how much urine leaked.
is expensive. It is typically done only if surgery is being considered or if
treatment has not worked for you and you need to know more about the cause. It
provides a more advanced way to check bladder function.
The actual tests done in urodynamic testing often
vary. They may include:
Cystometry, a series of tests to measure bladder pressure at different levels of fullness.
Postvoid residual (PVR) measurements, which measure the amount of urine that stays in your bladder after you urinate.
ultrasound. These are used to examine changes in the
position of the bladder and urethra during urination, coughing, or straining.
If the cause of incontinence is not identified by the
above tests, more extensive tests may be needed.
Urinary incontinence isn't an inevitable result of
aging. Most women who have it can be helped or cured.
The best treatment depends on
the cause of your incontinence and your personal preferences. Treatments include:
Behavioral training, such as bladder training and timed urination. For more information, see Other Treatment.
Lifestyle changes and pelvic floor (Kegel) exercises. For more information, see Home Treatment.
Quitting smoking. Smoking causes coughing, which can make it
harder to control your urine. Quitting smoking relieves coughing. For more
information, see the topic
If you have urinary incontinence, you can take some steps
on your own that may stop or reduce the problem.
Set a schedule of urinating every 2 to 4 hours, regardless
of whether you feel the need.
Talk with your doctor about all prescription and nonprescription
medicines you take. Find out if any of them may be making your incontinence
Use a bladder diary(What is a PDF document?) to keep track of your symptoms and any leaking of urine. Your diary can help you and your doctor find the best treatment for you.
If you have trouble reaching the bathroom before you urinate,
try making a clearer, quicker path to the bathroom and wearing clothes
that are easily removed (such as those with elastic waistbands or Velcro
closures). Or keep a bedpan close to your bed or chair.
Wear a tampon while doing activities such as jogging or dancing
to put a little pressure on your urethra and to temporarily slow or stop
Avoid drinking too much or too little fluid. Too much can increase the need to urinate and increase incontinence. Too little
can cause dehydration.
Pelvic floor (Kegel) exercises can help women who have any type of urinary incontinence.1 These exercises are especially
useful for stress incontinence. But they may also help
weight often helps stress incontinence. Remember that
effective weight-loss programs depend on a combination of diet and exercise.
Sometimes making lifestyle changes can help with urge incontinence. Try to identify any foods that might
irritate your bladder—including citrus fruits, chocolate, tomatoes, vinegars,
dairy products, aspartame, and spicy foods—and cut back on them. Also, avoid
alcohol and caffeine.
If you smoke, try to quit. This may reduce coughing, which may reduce
your problem with incontinence. For more information, see the topic
Take steps to avoid constipation:
Include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains in your diet each day. These foods are high in fiber.
Drink plenty of fluids, enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water.
Get some exercise every day. Try to do moderate activity at least 2½ hours a week. Or try to do vigorous activity at least 1¼ hours a week. It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week.
Take a fiber supplement, such as Citrucel or Metamucil, every day if needed. Start with a small dose and very slowly increase the dose over a month or more.
Schedule time each day for a bowel movement. Having a daily routine may help. Take your time and don't strain when having a bowel movement.
Urinary incontinence may be treated with medicines.
But in many cases, treatment with
behavioral methods (bladder training, timed urination) and Kegel exercises are tried before
medicines. These treatments, when combined with medicine, may help some women more than either treatment alone.
Botox is given as a shot to help relax the bladder
muscles. You may need to get a shot every 3 months. Side effects may include having pain when you urinate, not being
able to urinate easily, and getting a urinary tract infection (UTI). If you get a Botox shot, you may need to
take antibiotics to reduce your risk for getting a UTI.
There are several different kinds of
surgeries to correct
stress incontinence, which occurs when weakened
pelvic floor muscles allow the bladder neck and
urethra to drop. These surgeries seek to lift the
bladder, or both into the normal position. This makes sneezing,
coughing, and laughing less likely to make urine leak from the bladder.
Surgery works to cure stress incontinence better than any other treatment. If other treatments (like pelvic floor muscle exercises) haven't worked to control your incontinence, surgery may be your best option. What kind of surgery you have depends on your preference, your health, and your doctor's experience.
Surgery is done much less often for urge incontinence, and the results are not as good.
Other types of treatment for urinary incontinence include:
Behavioral methods. These are often the first thing to try. They often work well. They include:
Bladder training (also called bladder retraining). This
is used to treat urge incontinence. With bladder
training, you slowly increase how long you can wait before having to urinate by trying
to delay urination after you get the urge to go.
Biofeedback. This is
a technique for learning to control a body function that is not normally under
conscious control. It is usually used to teach pelvic floor muscle exercises.
Pelvic floor muscle exercises (Kegels). Kegel exercises can help strengthen
some of the muscles that control the flow of urine. These exercises are used to treat urge
or stress incontinence.
Acupuncture. There isn't a lot of evidence for how well acupuncture works for urinary incontinence. In one study, comparing bladder-specific acupuncture to sham acupuncture, both groups had less incontinence. But the group with bladder-specific acupuncture didn't have as many episodes of urgency.2
Before trying behavioral methods or exercise for urinary
incontinence, ask your doctor the following questions:
Is behavioral or exercise therapy alone likely to restore bladder control? Mild to moderate cases of common types of
incontinence can be cured or greatly improved by these methods.
How long should I try behavioral or exercise techniques before I consider surgery or other treatment methods?
Techniques like Kegel exercises don't limit future treatment options
(and they may even improve the odds of success for other treatments). So it is best to
set a length of time after which the improvement can be evaluated.
Can I use exercises or behavioral methods along with medicine if medicine treatment is recommended? It may
be possible to take medicine for a shorter time or to reduce the amount of medicines
used if other methods of treatment are combined with medicine.
Other Places To Get Help
American Urogynecologic Society
2025 M Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
The American Urogynecologic Society (AUGS) is the
premier society dedicated to research and education in urogynecology and in the
detection, prevention, and treatment of female lower urinary tract disorders
and pelvic floor disorders.
Dumoulin C, Hay-Smith J (2010). Pelvic floor muscle training versus no treatment, or inactive control treatments, for urinary incontinence in women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
Emmons SL, Otto L (2005). Acupuncture for overactive bladder. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 106(1): 138–143.
Other Works Consulted
Barber MD, et al. (2008). Transobturator tape compared
with tension-free vaginal tape for the treatment of stress urinary
incontinence. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 111(3):
Hartmann KE, et al. (2009). Treatment of Overactive Bladder in Women. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 187 (AHRQ Publication No. 09-E017). Available online: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/tp/bladdertp.htm.
Kirchin V, et al. (2012). Urethral injection therapy for urinary incontinence in women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2).
Lipp A, et al. (2006). Mechanical devices for urinary incontinence in women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (7).
Naumann M, et al. (2008). Assessment: Botulinum
neurotoxin in the treatment of autonomic disorders and pain (an evidence-based
review): Report of the Therapeutics and Technology Assessment Subcommittee of
the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology, 70(19):
Shamliyan TA, et al. (2008). Systematic review: Randomized, controlled trials of nonsurgical treatments for urinary incontinence in women. Annals of Internal Medicine, 148(6): 1–15.
Sung VW, et al. (2007). Comparison of retropubic vs transobturator approach to midurethral slings: A systematic review. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 197(1): 3–11.
Tanagho EA, et al. (2008). Urinary incontinence. In EA
Tanagho, JW McAninch, eds., Smith's General Urology,
17th ed., pp. 473–489. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
Waetjen LE, et al. (2008). Factors associated with worsening and improving urinary incontinence across the menopausal transition. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 111(3): 667–677.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.