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What is urinary incontinence? Causes, symptoms & more.

Published: April 6, 2023

Written by: Brigid Galloway Greenwood

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What is urinary incontinence?

For many adults, especially women, urination problems are a source of disruption and strife. Urinary incontinence — also called urinary leakage — affects somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of adults in the United States, and women are much more likely to have at least occasional leaks. Experts say this subject is so taboo that many people who suffer from it fail to report it to their health care providers.

“Urinary incontinence is the largest epidemic in America that no one talks about,” says Steven Gregg, PhD, executive director of the National Association for Continence. And yet, “it creates a big impact on quality of life and comes with stigma and shame.”

Getting a better understanding of the causes and treatments of incontinence can set you on a path to feeling more in control again.

What are the types of incontinence?

There are two main types of urinary incontinence — stress incontinence and urge incontinence — and both are more common in women. Urinary incontinence also becomes increasingly common with age.

1. Stress urinary incontinence

Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) is triggered by pressure or movement. Think coughing, jumping, lifting something heavy, running, sneezing or laughing so hard that you (literally) pee your pants. Stress incontinence can occur when the pelvic floor, which supports the bladder and urethra, gets stretched, weakened or damaged.

“Pregnancy, vaginal delivery, hysterectomy or pelvic radiation are all risk factors for SUI,” says Lauren Wood Thum, MD, a urologist and female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgeon at Urology Specialists in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Male incontinence can also be caused by prostate surgery.

2. Urge incontinence (also called overactive bladder)

Urge incontinence arises from the sudden, uncontrolled urge to urinate — that persistent “gotta go” sensation — often accompanied by leaks. Urge incontinence may be brought on by a number of factors, including diseases that affect the brain or spinal cord, such as stroke or multiple sclerosis; hormone changes, such as menopause; neurologic disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease; pelvic muscle weakness; side effects from a medication; and urinary tract infections.

3. Mixed urinary incontinence

Mixed urinary incontinence, as the name suggests, is a combination of stress incontinence and urge incontinence.

Tracking your symptoms

If you’re concerned about urinary incontinence, Gregg recommends starting a bladder diary to show to your health care practitioner. (Your doctor may also provide you with a similar document if you don’t have the chance to fill one out before your first visit.)

Note how many drinks you’re consuming, how many daily and nightly trips you take to the bathroom, any accidental urine leaks and any strong urges. Providing your doctor with this written account may also make it less embarrassing to start the conversation.

Incontinence treatment

“The good news is there are multiple treatment options for every type of incontinence,” Dr. Wood Thum says. Finding the best solution means getting a proper diagnosis and developing a quality treatment plan with a qualified physician who will monitor your health. Gregg recommends seeing a urologist or urogynecologist. “A specialist should provide you with treatment options and set goals for treatment,” he says.

Treatments may include:

  • Bladder retraining (timing bathroom breaks or delaying urination)

  • Lifestyle changes, such as fluid and diet management (drinking and eating at times that work better for your bladder)

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Pelvic floor exercises (like Kegel exercises) to strengthen bladder and pelvic muscles

  • Staying physically active

Some research shows that natural remedies for incontinence, such as a combination of pumpkin seed extract and soy germ extract, may help improve the symptoms. Your health care provider may recommend products like AZO Bladder Control with Go-Less daily supplement and CVS Health® bladder control capsules, which are formulated with these ingredients.

Medical intervention also may be helpful, depending on the type and severity of your incontinence. This could include bladder-relaxing medication, topical estrogen cream, injections or surgery.

Incontinence products

Many adults who live with stress incontinence and urge incontinence use absorbent products like incontinence pads and underwear. These may be more comfortable and discreet than you think.

“There’s a great deal of innovation in incontinence products now,” says Gregg. Products are made specifically for various incontinence needs, such as for daytime or nighttime usage. Options include a range of protection from light to heavy, including CVS Health protective pantiliners with very light absorbencyPoise incontinence pads with moderate absorbency and CVS Health women’s maximum absorbency underwear. Read the packaging closely to find the incontinence solution that’s right for you.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.