Urinary incontinence (UI), the involuntary loss of urine, is a very common condition that no one wants to talk about. Because of the stigma that surrounds it, many people are too humiliated to seek help. But most conditions that cause UI can be corrected with medical or alternative interventions.

Occurring much more often in women than men, UI happens when the muscles in the bladder that control the flow of urine contract or relax involuntarily, resulting in leaks or uncontrolled urination. UI itself is not a disease, but it can be a symptom of an underlying medical issue.

According to the Urology Care Foundation, women are at greater risk for UI than men because they have a shorter urethra than men. As a result, any weakness or damage to the urethra in a woman is more likely to cause urinary incontinence. This is because there is less muscle keeping the urine in your bladder until you are ready to urinate.

Causes of Urinary Incontinence (UI)

Incontinence may be a temporary problem caused by a vaginal or urinary tract infection (UTI), constipation, or certain medications, or it can be a chronic condition.

The most common causes of chronic incontinence include: (2)

  • Overactive bladder muscles
  • Weakened pelvic floor muscles
  • Nerve damage that affects bladder control
  • Interstitial cystitis (chronic bladder inflammation) or other bladder conditions
  • A disability or limitation that makes it difficult to get to the toilet quickly
  • Side effects from surgery
  • Obstruction
  • Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, stroke, or Parkinson’s disease
  • Men: an enlarged prostate, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), prostate cancer
  • Women: Pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, hysterectomy
The stigma around urinary incontinence stops many people from seeking treatment. Yet most conditions that cause UI can be corrected with medical or alternative interventions.

Forms of Urinary Incontinence That Affect Men Only

  • Benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate) affects about 50 percent of men over the age of 60, and 90 percent over the age of 85; an enlarged prostate can cause sudden and frequent urges to urinate. (3)
  • Peyronie’s disease is the result of injury or damage to penile tissue, causing an abnormal curvature. (4)
  • Painful inflammation of the prostate gland (5)

Forms of Urinary Incontinence That Affect Women Only

  • Pelvic organ prolapse occurs when the bladder, uterus, or rectum fall into the vaginal canal, creating a blockage. (6)
  • Pregnancy and childbirth cause physical trauma that can lead to either stress incontinence or overactive bladder. (6)
  • UI affects more than 50 percent of post-menopausal women. (7)
Incontinence is more common in older people, but it is not considered a normal part of aging.

Risk Factors for Urinary Incontinence

The following factors may put you at higher risk for developing UI. (6)

Being female Women experience stress incontinence twice as often as men. Men, on the other hand, are at greater risk for urge and overflow incontinence.

Advancing age As we get older, our bladder and urinary sphincter muscles often weaken, which may result in frequent and unexpected urges to urinate. Even though incontinence is more common in older people, it is not considered a normal part of aging.

Excess body fat Extra body fat increases the pressure on the bladder and can lead to urine leakage during exercise or when coughing or sneezing.

Other chronic diseases Vascular disease, kidney disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other conditions may increase the risk of urinary incontinence

Smoking A chronic smoker's cough can trigger or aggravate stress incontinence by putting pressure on the urinary sphincter.

High-impact sports While sports don't cause incontinence, running, jumping, and other activities that create sudden pressure on the bladder can lead to occasional episodes of incontinence during sports activities. (8)

RELATED: Why Does Diabetes Make You Urinate So Much?

Duration of Urinary Incontinence

Most cases of UI are chronic, and will remain so until treated. Depending on the cause, however, not all UI cases are chronic. If the cause is temporary, such as a vaginal infection or a urinary tract infection, the UI will stop once the issue is addressed. (10)

RELATED: What Do the Color and Smell of Your Urine Tell You?

Prevention of Urinary Incontinence

You can decrease your risk of developing UI by: (2)

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Practice pelvic floor exercises.
  • Avoid irritants to the bladder (such as caffeine, alcohol, and acidic food).
  • Drink no more than 64 ounces of liquids per day.
  • Get more fiber into your diet, which can help prevent constipation.
  • Quit smoking.

Research and Statistics

UI is a very common issue, and more than 25 million Americans experience urinary leakage every day. (14) It affects women twice as often as men, occurring in approximately 20 to 30 percent of young women, 30 to 40 percent in midlife and up to 50 percent of women in their senior years. (7)

Resources We Love

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

ACOG provides education for women with UI. It also helps you find a gynecologist in your area.

National Association for Continence

NACF offers support and education for patients, caregivers, and professionals.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Health and Information Center

NIDDK conducts and supports research on health issues related to many diseases, including urological ones.

Urology Care Foundation

The official foundation of the American Urological Association, UCF provides support and education and helps you find a urologist in your area. You can also opt in to receive free copies of its UrologyHealth Extra magazine.

Learn More About Urinary Incontinence Resources

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Symptoms and Causes of Bladder Control Problems (Urinary Incontinence). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. June 2018.
  2. Urinary Incontinence. Mayo Clinic. April 13, 2019.
  3. Nocturia. Cleveland Clinic. January 6, 2020.
  4. Men’s Conditions. National Association for Continence.
  5. Urinary Incontinence in Older Adults. National Institute on Aging. May 16, 2017.
  6. Women’s Conditions. National Association for Continence.
  7. Kolodynksa G, et al. Urinary Incontinence in Post-Menopausal Women — Causes, Symptoms, Treatments. Menopause Review. April 2019.
  8. Brito Cardoso AM, et al. Prevalence of Urinary Incontinence in High-Impact Sports Athletes and Their Association With Knowledge, Attitude, and Practice About This Dysfunction. European Journal of Sport Science. July 19, 2018.
  9. Urinary Incontinence Diagnosis. Stanford Health Care.
  10. What Is Urinary Incontinence? Urology Care Foundation. April 2020.
  11. Neuromodulation for Female Urinary Incontinence. NYU Langone Health.
  12. Urinary Incontinence: Injectable Implant. Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. January 31, 2019.
  13. Urinary Incontinence Products. MedlinePlus. September 11, 2020.
  14. Home Page. National Association for Continence.
  15. Bowel Health. National Association for Continence.


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