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Urinary retention

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Urinary retention occurs when you can’t completely empty your bladder.
  • It can cause damage to your bladder and kidneys.
  • It can result from a blockage of the passage that lets urine out of your bladder (urethra), or a problem with how your bladder muscle works.
  • You might notice a weaker stream of urine, pain and fullness in your abdomen, urine leakage and difficulty holding urine in.
  • You may need to have your bladder emptied with a catheter.

See your doctor immediately or go to the emergency department if your bladder feels full but you cannot urinate at all.

What is urinary retention?

Urinary retention occurs when you are not able to completely empty your bladder. It can be:

  • acute — if your bladder feels full but you can’t pass any urine
  • chronic — if you can pass urine, but your bladder is still partially full when you finish

Urinary retention needs to be treated. If not, it can cause kidney or bladder damage.

What are the symptoms of acute urinary retention?

Acute urinary retention usually comes on suddenly. Symptoms include:

  • severe lower abdominal pain (but you may not have much pain if you already have chronic urinary retention)
  • a feeling of fullness in your lower abdomen
  • wanting to pass urine but not being able to

Acute urinary retention needs urgent medical attention. A doctor or nurse will empty your bladder using a urinary catheter, which is a long soft tube inserted into your urethra.

What are the symptoms of chronic urinary retention?

Chronic urinary retention comes on more gradually. It may take a long time for you to notice symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

  • straining to pass urine or a weaker flow of urine with a slow start
  • feeling like your bladder is still full after you pass urine
  • overflow incontinence — leaking urine without being able to control it
  • difficulty holding in your urine, especially when you cough or sneeze
  • wetting yourself or needing to urinate frequently at night
  • swelling and mild pain in your abdomen

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How is urinary retention caused?

There are many reasons why you might develop urinary retention. It is more likely as you get older, because of changes in your urinary tract that occur with ageing.

If something blocks or presses on your urethra (the passage that lets urine out of your bladder) it can cause urinary retention. A blockage can be caused by:

Damage to the nerves that control your bladder muscle can cause urinary retention. Damage may be caused by:

Other causes of urinary retention include:

Complications of urinary retention

If you have urinary retention you may get:

When urine builds up in your bladder, it can cause pressure and overstretching throughout your urinary tract. This can go all the way up to your kidneys. It can lead to:

  • damage to your bladder
  • a tear in the wall of your bladder
  • damage to your kidneys

How is urinary retention diagnosed?

You may have a bladder scan. This test uses ultrasound to measure the amount of urine in your bladder. If you are able to pass urine, a bladder scan can measure how much urine is left in your bladder after you urinate.

Your doctor may also examine you and order tests to look for the cause of your urinary retention.

How is urinary retention treated?

If you have acute urinary retention, your bladder will be emptied with a catheter. The catheter may need to stay in place for a while. You may need to learn to use a catheter yourself to empty your bladder on a regular basis.

Treatment depends on what is causing your urinary retention. It may include:

If urinary incontinence is a problem for you, your doctor or continence nurse can give you advice about how to manage it.

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor immediately if your bladder feels full but you cannot urinate at all. If your doctor is not available, go to the emergency department.

See your doctor if you have:

  • symptoms of urinary retention
  • symptoms of a urinary tract infection
  • blood in your urine
  • symptoms that don’t improve with treatment

If you have a catheter, see your doctor immediately or go to the emergency department if:

  • you feel unwell
  • you have a fever
  • you have pain in your abdomen or around the catheter
  • your urine has a bad smell or contains blood
  • no urine has drained for 4 hours

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What can I do to help myself pass urine?

If you are having trouble passing urine, there are some things you can do that may help you urinate:

  • Try urinating in a warm shower or bath.
  • Put your hand in cold water.
  • See a doctor or continence nurse for advice about when and how to sit on the toilet.

If you think you cannot urinate because of your medicines, talk to your doctor about it. You shouldn’t stop taking your medicines until you have been advised it is safe to do so.

For more information and advice, contact the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66. You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: July 2022

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