Urinary incontinence happens when you lose control of your bladder. In some cases, you may empty your bladder’s contents completely. In other cases, you may experience only minor leakage. The condition may be temporary or chronic, depending on its cause.

According to the Urology Care Foundation, millions of adults in the United States experience urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence affects women more often than men in a 2-to-1 ratio. However, this condition can affect anyone and has many different causes.

As you age, the muscles supporting your bladder tend to weaken, which can lead to urinary incontinence.

Many different health problems can also cause the condition. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can be a sign of cancer, kidney stones, infection, or an enlarged prostate, among other causes.

If you experience urinary incontinence, make an appointment with a healthcare professional. Urinary incontinence can interfere with your daily life and lead to potential accidents. A healthcare professional can also determine if a more serious medical condition may be the cause. They may also be able to treat the cause.

Urinary incontinence is divided into three general types. You can potentially experience more than one type at the same time.

Stress incontinence

Stress incontinence is triggered by certain types of physical activity.

For example, you might lose control of your bladder when you’re:

  • exercising
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • laughing

Such activities put stress on the sphincter muscle that holds urine in your bladder. The added stress can cause the muscle to release urine.

Urge incontinence

Urge incontinence occurs when you lose control of your bladder after experiencing a sudden and strong urge to urinate. Once that urge hits, you may not be able to make it to the bathroom in time.

Overflow incontinence

Overflow incontinence can occur if you don’t completely empty your bladder when you urinate. Later, some of the remaining urine may leak from your bladder. This type of incontinence is sometimes called “dribbling.”

Functional incontinence

Unlike other types of incontinence, functional incontinence is caused by physical or mental barriers that may prevent someone from making it to the bathroom in time. This can be due to cognitive issues, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, muscular issues like arthritis, or neurological issues like stroke or spinal cord damage.

There are many potential causes and risk factors for urinary incontinence.

Some risk factors can include:

  • having weakened bladder muscles, which can result from aging
  • having physical damage to your pelvic floor muscles, such as from childbirth
  • having an enlarged prostate
  • having prostate or bladder cancer, which can put pressure on your bladder
  • having a neurological condition such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or a physical condition that may prevent you from making it to the bathroom on time
  • having an infection, such as a urinary tract infection, bladder infection, kidney infection, or kidney stone
  • being pregnant
  • being overweight
  • having diabetes
  • going through menopause

Some of the conditions that cause urinary incontinence are easily treatable and only cause temporary urinary problems. Others are more serious and persistent.

Common causes of urinary incontinence may include:

Aging

As you get older, the muscles supporting your bladder typically become weaker, which raises your risk for incontinence.

To maintain strong muscles and a healthy bladder, it’s important to stay as active as you can, eat a diet rich in nutrients, and maintain a healthy weight. This may improve your chances of avoiding incontinence as you age.

Damage

Your pelvic floor muscles support your bladder. Damage to these muscles can cause incontinence. It can be caused by certain types of surgery, such as a hysterectomy. It’s also a common result of pregnancy and childbirth.

Enlarged prostate

In men, the prostate gland surrounds the neck of the bladder. This gland releases fluid that protects and nourishes your sperm. It tends to enlarge with age. It’s common for males to experience some incontinence as a result.

Cancer

Prostate or bladder cancer can cause incontinence. In some cases, treatments for cancer can also make it harder for you to control your bladder. Even benign tumors can cause incontinence by blocking your flow of urine.

Other potential causes

Other potential causes of incontinence may include:

Some lifestyle factors can also cause temporary bouts of incontinence. For example, drinking too much alcohol, caffeinated beverages, or other fluids can cause you to temporarily lose control of your bladder.

Any instance of incontinence is reason to seek medical help. It may be a symptom of a more serious condition that needs to be treated.

Even if the underlying cause isn’t serious, incontinence can be a major disruption in your life. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis and discuss treatment options with a healthcare professional.

In some cases, incontinence can be a sign of a medical emergency.

You should seek immediate medical attention if you lose control of your bladder and experience any of the following symptoms:

You can connect with a urologist in your area using the Healthline FindCare tool.

Urinary incontinence and treatment for urinary incontinence may result in complications, depending on the cause.

These complications may include:

  • Urinary tract infections. UTIs can be caused by wet undergarments against the skin. This may create an environment where bacteria can grow.
  • Kidney damage. In some cases where the flow of urine is obstructed, you may experience kidney trouble or kidney failure.
  • Cellulitis. This skin infection is caused by bacteria and may cause swelling and pain.
  • Medication side effects. Medications used to control urinary incontinence may cause side effects, depending on the medication. Side effects may include dry mouth, nausea, hypertension, or others.
  • Catheter side effects. If you have a catheter placed, you may experience side effects such as infection and trauma.
  • Mental health side effects. Urinary incontinence may cause feelings of anxiety, depression, or social isolation.

During your appointment, your healthcare professional will likely ask questions about your symptoms. They’ll probably want to know how long you’ve been incontinent, which types of incontinence you’ve experienced, and other details.

They may also ask about your daily habits, including your typical diet and any medications or supplements that you take.

Depending on your symptoms and medical history, they may also order additional tests, including:

  • Collecting a sample of urine for analysis. Laboratory staff can check the urine sample for signs of infection or other problems.
  • Measuring the amount of urine that you release when urinating, the amount left over in your bladder, and the pressure in your bladder. This information is gathered by inserting a catheter, or a small tube, into your urethra and your bladder.
  • Conducting a cystoscopy. During this test, they’ll insert a small camera into your bladder to examine it up close.

Your healthcare professional’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the cause of your incontinence. An underlying medical condition may require medication, surgery, or other treatments.

In certain situations, they may not be able to cure your bladder incontinence. In these cases, they will likely provide steps you can take to manage your condition.

Treatment options for urinary incontinence may include:

  • Bladder training. You may be encouraged to do certain exercises, such as pelvic floor exercises or bladder training, which can help to increase your bladder control.
  • Behavior therapy. Managing your fluid intake, adjusting your diet, or using the bathroom at scheduled times before you feel the urge to go may help manage bladder incontinence, depending on the cause.
  • Condition management. If your urinary incontinence is caused by another condition, such as constipation or a UTI, treating that condition may help your urinary incontinence as well.
  • Medication. Sometimes, medication may help, depending on the cause of your bladder incontinence. Antimuscarinics are a class of drugs used to treat an overactive bladder.
  • Catheter placement. If your urinary incontinence is persistent and significantly affecting your quality of life, a doctor may suggest an internal or external catheter to help manage overflow incontinence, or in some cases, functional incontinence.
  • Weight loss. A doctor may suggest weight loss to help manage your symptoms because it can relieve pressure on your bladder.
  • Absorbent undergarments. Using pads or absorbent undergarments, from disposable panties to washable and reusable ones, may help contain smaller leaks.
  • Reducing bathroom barriers. If you’re having trouble navigating to the bathroom, especially at night, consider maintaining a clear and well-lit path to help you get there as quickly as possible.

You can’t prevent all cases of urinary incontinence, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing it.

For example, try to:

Urinary incontinence or bladder incontinence occurs when you lose control of your bladder. This may mean a minor leak or emptying your bladder or somewhere in between.

This can be a temporary issue, such as one caused by an infection, or a more persistent one that may be caused by another health condition, such as an enlarged prostate or pelvic floor weakness.

A doctor may be able to help treat your urinary incontinence by resolving the health issue that’s causing it. Or, they may be able to help you manage the condition through behavioral therapy, bladder training, medication, or other treatments.

Even if the cause is not serious, urinary incontinence can affect your quality of life. It is important to talk with a doctor to discover the cause and find a treatment option that works for you.