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

Urinary retention

2-minute read

If you can’t pass urine even though you feel the need to, and your bladder is full, that is known as urinary retention. It can last for a short time or a long time. It needs to be treated, as it can cause kidney damage or other serious complications.

Symptoms usually come on suddenly and may become very painful as you feel desperate to relieve your bladder, but can’t.

Acute urinary retention needs urgent medical attention and your bladder may need to be emptied using a urinary catheter, which is a long soft tube. See your doctor right away or go to the emergency department if you cannot urinate at all or you are in pain in your lower tummy or urinary tract area.

There are many different causes of urinary retention, but some of the most common are:

  • recent surgery in the genital, prostate, rectal, pelvic or lower abdominal area
  • medical conditions such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis
  • injury to the bladder or urethra
  • an obstruction in the urethra, for example with a urinary tract stone or problem with the prostate gland
  • nerve problems
  • constipation
  • weakened bladder muscles
  • some medicines
  • an infection
  • a tumour in your pelvis, bladder or urethra

Chronic retention

Sometimes urinary retention comes on more gradually and a person slowly notices that they cannot fully empty their bladder. This type of urinary retention may take months or years to develop and is not usually painful.

Looking after yourself

If you are having problems passing urine, there are a number of things you can do that may help manage the condition:

  • Try urinating in a bath of warm water.
  • Turn on the taps of the sink or basin and let the water trickle. Sometimes the sound of running water helps to start urination.

If you think you cannot urinate because of your medication, you should not stop taking your medicines until you have been advised it is safe to do so by your doctor.

If you are in pain, get advice on pain relief medicines you can take.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your urinary retention, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

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

Last reviewed: March 2020


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Urinary problems (LUTS) | Healthy Male

LUTS (lower urinary tract symptoms) are symptoms related to problems with your lower urinary tract: your bladder, your prostate and your urethra.

Read more on Healthy Male - Andrology Australia website

Incontinence associated with chronic retention Urinary Continence Foundation of Australia

Incontinence associated with chronic retention is when the bladder is unable to empty properly and frequent leakage of small amounts of urine occurs as a result.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Incontinence | enableme - stroke recovery and support

Problems with bladder and bowel control are common after stroke. If left untreated, your difficulties may become worse or lead to other problems

Read more on Stroke Foundation website

Prostate gland and urinary problems - Better Health Channel

Many men experience urinary changes as they age, which may be caused by inflammation or enlargement of the prostate gland.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Image Guided Lumbar Epidural Corticosteroid Injection - InsideRadiology

InsideRadiology provides free and easily accessible, accurate, up to date and credible information about medical imaging tests and procedures.

Read more on InsideRadiology 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