Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Incontinence – an overview

6-minute read

If you accidentally lose some urine (wee) or faeces (poo), you could have incontinence. It’s a very common problem and it can be treated. There’s no need to be embarrassed – the first step is to talk to your doctor to see what can be done.

What is incontinence?

Incontinence ranges from having just a small leak of urine to completely losing control of your bladder or bowel.

More than 5 million Australians have some form of incontinence, from young children to older people living in care. More than 6 in 10 women and about 3 in every 10 men will be affected in some way. In women, incontinence is more common as they get older.

Most don’t ask for professional help.

Incontinence, however, can often be cured, or at least treated and managed. The first step is to talk to your doctor.

Types of incontinence

A common form of incontinence is urinary incontinence, or poor bladder control. It is more common in women around the time of a pregnancy or after menopause. Some conditions like asthma, diabetes and arthritis can also cause urinary incontinence.

Some people just leak occasionally when they sneeze, laugh or exercise. Others completely lose control of their bladder so they wet themselves. Some people may need to visit the toilet very often or very suddenly.

The other form of incontinence is faecal incontinence, or poor bowel control. People with faecal incontinence poo at the wrong time or in the wrong place. They might pass wind by mistake or stain their underwear.

Poor bowel control is very common, affecting about 1 in 20 people. It is more common in older people but young people have it too. It can be caused by muscles around the anus (back passage) becoming weak after someone has had babies, surgery or radiation therapy. Other causes are constipation or diarrhoea. People with poor bowel control might also have poor bladder control.

Other conditions linked to incontinence include diabetes, kidney problems, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.

Are you worried about incontinence?

You might find the idea of discussing bladder or bowel control problems embarrassing – many people do. But it is worth seeing your doctor if you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions:

  • Do you sometimes feel you have not completely emptied your bladder?
  • Do you have to rush to use the toilet?
  • Are you frequently nervous because you think you might lose control of your bladder or bowel?
  • Do you wake up twice or more during the night to go to the toilet?
  • Do you sometimes leak before you get to the toilet?
  • Do you sometimes leak when you lift something heavy, sneeze, cough or laugh?
  • Do you sometimes leak when you exercise or play sport?
  • Do you sometimes leak when you change from a seated or lying position to a standing position?
  • Do you strain to empty your bowel?
  • Do you sometimes soil your underwear?
  • Do you plan your daily routine around where the nearest toilet is?

Living with incontinence

The best treatment for incontinence will depend on the cause. Often it can be cured; or if not, there are plenty of effective treatments that will help you manage everyday life.

If you or someone you care for has incontinence, it is useful to set up a routine. Your doctor can refer you to a continence health professional to help you manage at home and work, on outings, while exercising, and in your relationships.

The Continence Foundation recommends speaking to your doctor or a continence nurse adviser on the National Continence Helpline (1800 33 00 66). They can recommend the best health professional for you, and this is an important part of managing your incontinence.

There are many products available to help you live with incontinence, such as pads, catheters or bedding protection. The Australian Government and state and territory governments may subsidise some of these products, if you are eligible. Your continence nurse adviser can advise you whether to apply.

Preventing incontinence

There are several ways to prevent incontinence, or to stop it from getting worse:

  • Drink plenty of fluids every day, unless your doctor tells you not to. Don’t cut down on fluid even if you have poor bladder control.
  • Eat a healthy diet containing plenty of fibre.
  • Keep healthy by making sure you’re not overweight, and by quitting smoking and doing enough physical activity.
  • Practise good toilet habits – go when you have the urge to poo, sit on the toilet leaning forward with your elbows on your knees and draw up your back passage when you’ve finished. Don’t hold your breath or strain.
  • See your doctor if you are worried. The symptoms won’t get better without treatment, and they might get worse over time.

Where to go for help

You can also look for local services, or visit the continence resource centre in your state:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Faecal incontinence What is incontinence? Continence Foundation of Australia

Faecal incontinence is a term used to describe leakage from the bowel due to poor bowel control.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Caring for someone with incontinence

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Medical conditions and incontinence Caring for someone with incontinence Continence Foundation of Australia

Continence Foundation of Australia

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Bowel problems Managing incontinence Continence Foundation of Australia

Continence Foundation of Australia

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

In residential care or hospital Managing incontinence Continence Foundation of Australia

Sometimes the routine of a hospital or a residential care facility may not suit the individual.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Who's at risk? The facts Continence Foundation of Australia

Some health conditions and life events can put you at risk of developing either urinary or faecal incontinence. What are the known risk factors? Learn about important health alerts.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Urinary incontinence What is incontinence? Continence Foundation of Australia

Urinary incontinence is a term used to describe poor bladder control.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

What's Faecal Incontinence (FI)? | Incontinence in Confidence

Faecal incontinence is any bowel (poo) leakage, also known as soiling or poor bowel control. About one in twenty Australians experience faecal incontinence, including thousands of teenagers and young people. Continence Foundation of Australia.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Incontinence in Confidence | Leaking wee or poo? Support for teenagers

Incontinence in Confidence is an initiative of the Continence Foundation of Australia aimed at supporting teenagers with bladder or bowel concerns (incontinence). Information and advice on bedwetting, daytime wetting and soiling. Learn where to get help and how to better manage incontinence.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

What is incontinence? The facts Continence Foundation of Australia

Incontinence is a term that describes any accidental or involuntary loss of urine from the bladder (urinary incontinence) or bowel motion, faeces or wind from the bowel (faecal or bowel incontinence).

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo