Incontinence means involuntary leakage of urine or faeces or both. Over four million Australians are affected by accidental leakage from the bladder and bowel. Incontinence can occur in men or women of any age, but it is more common in older people.
In many cases, incontinence can be prevented. See your doctor if you have any concerns about your toilet habits.
Healthy bladder and bowel
If you have a healthy bladder and bowel, you should:
- be urinating between four and six times per day, and once (or not at all) during the night
- have urine that is pale yellow – dark yellow or brown urine may indicate that you are not drinking enough (dehydration)
- produce bowel motions (poo) – between three times a day and three times a week
- have bowel motions that are soft and easy to pass
- not have any accidental leaks.
Symptoms of incontinence
The common symptoms of incontinence include:
- accidental leakage of urine or faeces
- inability to get to the toilet in time
- passing small amounts of urine many times a day
- needing to get out of bed, often every night, to pass urine
- difficulty with starting to urinate
- urination stream that keeps stopping and starting
- a burning or stinging sensation when you urinate
- the feeling that your bladder isn’t empty after urinating
- sudden onset of bedwetting
- chronic constipation.
If you have any of these symptoms, or if you have any concerns at all about your toilet habits, see your doctor.
Prevention of incontinence
Some things are very important to prevent urinary and faecal incontinence. These include:
- drinking plenty of fluids
- eating a high-fibre diet
- being physically active
- practicing good toilet habits
- making healthy lifestyle choices.
Drinking fluids helps prevent incontinence
Dehydration can cause constipation or bladder irritation. To prevent dehydration:
- Drink water when you are thirsty.
- Drink up to two litres (six to eight glasses) of fluid each day, unless advised otherwise by your doctor.
- Drink more fluids in hot weather or after heavy exercise.
- Take small sips and spread your drinks evenly throughout the day.
Fluids include fruit juice, tea, coffee, milk or soup, but limit your daily intake of carbonated drinks, alcohol, tea and coffee because they can cause bladder irritation.
You can check to see if you are drinking enough fluid by looking at the colour of your urine. If you are well hydrated, your urine should be pale yellow. Urine that is dark yellow in colour may indicate you have not had enough fluid. Remember that some medications, vitamins and foods can affect the colour of urine.
High-fibre diet helps prevent incontinence
It is important to eat well to keep your bowels healthy and regular. Your diet should contain food that is high in fibre. Dietary fibre is not digested, so it adds bulk to the stools (poo), which is important to keep things moving and to avoid constipation. A poor diet can cause chronic constipation, which can lead to faecal incontinence.
Suggestions for adding more fibre in your diet include:
- Eat plenty of wholegrain cereals (such as porridge, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bread or pulses – lentils and beans) rather than highly processed or refined food.
- Eat fruit (at least two pieces) and vegetables (at least five serves) every day.
- Aim for 30–60 g of fibre every day. As a rough guide, a bowl of muesli contains about 8 g of fibre and an apple (with skin) has just over 3 g.
- Drink up to two litres of fluid per day (dietary fibre needs water in order to plump up the stool).
Physical activity helps prevent incontinence
Physical activity helps prevent constipation by stimulating muscular activity of the bowel (peristalsis). Exercise also helps to maintain a healthy body weight, reducing pressure on the pelvic floor, which is the sling of muscle directly responsible for bladder and bowel control.
Suggestions for physical activity include:
- You don’t have to choose an expensive activity – a brisk 30-minute walk every day is free and great for your general health.
- Pick something that’s fun – you are more likely to stick to a regular exercise routine if you enjoy the activity.
- Keep your pelvic floor muscles in shape – obesity, pregnancy, childbirth, regular heavy lifting, high impact exercise and a chronic cough can weaken the pelvic floor, but you can strengthen these muscles with specific exercises.
Good toilet habits help prevent incontinence
Good toilet habits can help to prevent bladder and bowel problems. Suggestions include:
- Go to the toilet to urinate only when your bladder is full. If you make a habit of trying to urinate ‘just in case’, you’ll teach your bladder to signal the urge to urinate when it isn’t full.
- Take your time on the toilet. Allow urine to flow at its own speed (don’t use your pelvic floor to push out urine).
- Go to the toilet when you feel the urge to pass a bowel motion. Hanging on can lead to constipation.
- Give yourself plenty of time to pass a bowel motion.
- Don’t strain to open your bowels. Regular straining can cause problems including haemorrhoids (swollen veins in the anus), and can weaken your pelvic floor muscles.
- Use correct posture on the toilet (it can help you pass a bowel motion). Place your elbows on your knees, bulge out your stomach, straighten your spine and put your feet on a footstool (if it’s safe to do so).
- Treat laxatives as a short-term solution and work on treating constipation with diet, exercise and lifestyle changes.
Healthy lifestyle helps prevent incontinence
Healthy food choices, exercising and managing your weight are important to prevent incontinence. Suggestions for a healthy lifestyle include:
- Maintain a healthy weight – excess body fat strains the muscles of the pelvic floor. Lose weight slowly and sensibly with improved eating habits and regular exercise. See your doctor for more information.
- Seek medical advice – beware of self-diagnosis. Constipation is sometimes a symptom of an underlying health problem. Always see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment advice.
- Don’t smoke – if you smoke, quit. A chronic cough because of smoking weakens the pelvic floor and contributes to the onset of incontinence.
- Treat urinary tract infections (UTIs) promptly – UTIs irritate the bladder lining. Seek immediate treatment if you have symptoms.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Local continence clinic or service
- A continence or pelvic floor physiotherapist
- National Continence Helpline Tel. 1800 33 00 66
- Victorian Continence Resource Centre Tel. (03) 9816 8266 or 1300 220 871
Things to remember
- Incontinence is accidental leakage of urine or faeces.
- To prevent urinary and faecal incontinence, you need to drink plenty of liquids, eat a high-fibre diet, exercise regularly, develop healthy toilet habits and make lifestyle choices such as quitting cigarettes.
- See your doctor if you have any concerns about your toilet habits.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Victorian Continence Resource Centre
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.