What Is Urinary Incontinence?

Incontinence is the unwanted or accidental leakage of urine from the bladder. Many refer to it as ‘loss of bladder control’, a ‘leaky bladder’ or a ‘weak bladder’. Episodes of incontinence are often referred to as ‘accidents’. Urine leakage can be just a few drops or a dribble or may be a stream. Some urine leakage can be severe, which is when the entire bladder contents leak.

How Common Is Urinary Incontinence?

People often keep the problem to themselves, so urinary incontinence is much more common than most people realize. Incontinence affects more than twice as many women as men and is often a significant health issue for women as they age. At least 1 in 3 adult women and 1 in 5 men will experience urinary incontinence.

Incontinence can vary from person to person and from day to day and can occur rarely or frequently. Studies have shown that 2 years after childbirth, 1 in 3 women report drops or small amounts of urine leakage during certain activities such as coughing, laughing, sexual intercourse and high-impact exercises. As women approach menopause, the quantity of urine they leak increases, progressing to large amounts and sometimes soaking clothing.

Can Urinary Incontinence Be Treated?

Incontinence is not a personal failure, nor is it something that women should expect; it can often be cured. Sadly, most women simply put up with it and do not get the help they need. On average, women wait 3 years before seeking treatment while men wait only 6 months. Women who mention their problem to a doctor or nurse are often told to ‘live with it’. The most common reasons given for not seeking treatment are ‘incontinence is not abnormal’ or ‘treatment is unlikely to help’ or ‘it is a normal part of getting old’. It is sad that despite the increase in the number of women and men with incontinence there is still a lack of open discussion about the problem.

To find out more about urinary incontinence, see our related articles on how the bladder works, types and causes of incontinence, what you can do, what your doctor can do, urinary incontinence in men and living with urinary incontinence.

Fascinating Facts

  • Of every 10 women, three have suffered from incontinence at some time in their adult life
  • Incontinence costs the UK National Health Service about £242 million/year
  • In the USA, 20 million people have incontinence of urine. The annual cost is about $12.4 billion for women and $3.8 billion for men
  • In the USA, at least $4.5 billion is spent on incontinence pads every year


First published on: embarrassingproblems.com
Reviewed and edited by: Dr Diane Newman
Last updated: October 2020

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