It's not normal to unexpectedly leak urine from your bladder – but it is quite common. If you have trouble controlling your bladder, a simple lifestyle change or treatment may be all that’s needed to cure or improve it, or to help you manage.
Types of urinary incontinence
There are different types of urinary incontinence, each with different causes and treatments:
Stress incontinence: Someone leaks small amounts of urine when they cough, sneeze, laugh or play sport. This happens because increased pressure inside the tummy presses down on the bladder.
It’s more common in women around the time of childbirth or after menopause. It can also happen in people who have diabetes, a chronic cough (due to asthma, smoking or bronchitis), constipation or obesity.
Urge incontinence: The person suddenly and urgently needs to wee. This condition is sometimes called an unstable or overactive bladder. People with urge incontinence feel like their bladder is fuller than it actually is. They may need to wee very often, including during the night.
Urge incontinence often gets worse as they age, and can be triggered by stress or by drinking caffeine in tea, coffee and fizzy drinks or alcohol. It’s also linked to stroke, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and other health conditions that interfere in the messages sent between the bladder and the brain.
Incontinence associated with chronic retention: The bladder doesn’t empty properly so it leaks small amounts of urine. This can happen due to a blockage in the urethra (the tube leading from the bladder out of the body), an enlarged prostate, a prolapse, or damage to the nerves around the bladder or pelvic floor muscles.
The condition can be caused by some medicines and is also linked to diabetes, multiple sclerosis, stroke and Parkinson's disease.
Functional incontinence: The person can’t go to the toilet properly due to physical, intellectual or other problems – for example, they can’t walk to the toilet or can’t communicate that they need to go.
This is most common in people who have problems walking caused by conditions such as arthritis or cerebral palsy, or in people who have brain conditions such as dementia or intellectual disability.
Symptoms of urinary incontinence
Symptoms range from occasionally leaking some urine, to completely losing control of your bladder (when you wet yourself).
Other symptoms include:
- often needing to visit the toilet urgently or frequently
- having 'accidents'
- leaking urine when you laugh, sneeze, cough or exercise
- feeling that you need to strain to pass urine
- a weak or slow urine stream
- feeling as if your bladder is not empty just after going to the toilet
- having little or no warning when you need to pass urine
- passing urine while asleep
- having a lot of urinary tract infections
- 'dribbling' more urine after visiting the toilet
How urinary incontinence is diagnosed
The first step is to visit your doctor. They will examine you and talk about your medical history. You may need to keep a diary of your bladder habits to see what type of urinary incontinence you have. For example, you might need to write down how much you drink, how many times you go to the toilet, and when you leak.
You might also have special tests to monitor what happens to your bladder when it’s filled with urine. This is called urodynamic testing.
Your doctor will rule out other health conditions that might be affecting your bladder.
Treatment for urinary incontinence
The most appropriate treatment for urinary incontinence will depend on what is causing it.
Treatment can be as simple as managing constipation or treating a urinary tract infection. You might be advised to change your lifestyle – for example by cutting back on caffeine or alcohol, losing weight, or making changes to your home so it’s easier to access the bathroom.
If the problem is with your pelvic floor muscles, physiotherapy can make a big difference. Medicine can help to relax the bladder muscles, which can help with urge incontinence. Talk to your doctor about whether medicine is right for you.
Strengthening your pelvic floor muscles is important to help control the flow of urine. The Continence Foundation of Australia has produced this video on how to do pelvic floor exercises:
The Continence Foundation of Australia has produced these videos to help explain the function and role of the pelvic floor muscles:
Female pelvic floor muscles
Male pelvic floor muscles
If either medicine or physiotherapy don’t work, surgery to support your bladder and urethra is an option for some types of urinary incontinence.
There are also things you can do to reduce the impact of urinary incontinence. You can train your bladder to improve control and increase the amount of urine you can hold. Talk to your doctor or incontinence health professional about a bladder training program.
If you are caring for someone with incontinence, make sure they can access the toilet easily and that it’s clearly signposted. Make sure their clothing is easy to remove and monitor their routine so you can remind them to go to the toilet regularly. You can read more about caring for someone with incontinence on the Continence Foundation of Australia website.
Tips for living with urinary incontinence
With a little planning, you can manage your urinary incontinence so it doesn’t affect your life too much. There are many products available to help you live with incontinence, such as pads, catheters or bedding protection. Some of these are subsidised by the government.
It can help to get into a routine. Plan for outings, make sure you have enough products and spare clothes in case you have an accident, and know how to find the nearest toilet. It’s also a good idea to work out how your diet and fluids affect your symptoms.
Help and support
- If you are worried a health condition might be causing your incontinence, check out your symptoms on healthdirect’s Symptom Checker.
- If you feel embarrassed about talking to your doctor, why not visit healthdirect’s Question Builder for help with what to ask them?
- The Continence Foundation of Australia provides information on funding, referral and products. It also has free resources for individuals, carers and professionals to help treat bladder and bowel control problems. They include easy to understand booklets for people who may have low literacy.
- The foundation also produces a range of resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including Indigenous health workers.
- Phone a nurse on 1800 33 00 66 for free advice or visit the National Continence Helpline website.
- Incontinence in Confidence offers advice and support for young people with incontinence.
- Download a public toilet map, which shows the location of more than 19,000 public and private public toilet facilities across Australia.
- Read more about caring for someone with incontinence on the Continence Foundation of Australia website.
- If English is not your main language, you may find information in your language here.
You can also look for local services, or visit the continence resource centre in your state:
- ACT: Continence services
- New South Wales: Continence Foundation of Australia
- Northern Territory: Bladder and Bowel Health Australia Inc.
- Queensland: Continence aids
- South Australia: SA Continence Resource Centre
- Tasmania: Community Continence Service – South and North
- Victoria: Victorian Continence Resource Centre
- Western Australia: Bladder and Bowel Health Australia Inc.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: December 2020