Incontinence – an overview

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.

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Last reviewed: December 2018