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What is incontinence? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Care

We'll be discussing the meaning of incontinence, what causes incontinence and how you can start to treat the condition.

What is incontinence?

Incontinence occurs when you’re unable to control your bladder or bowel leading to accidental leakage. This is known as urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence respectively.

The NHS estimate that between three and six million people in the UK have some degree of urinary incontinence alone, with many more living with the condition undiagnosed.

Benenden Health carried out a survey of 1,000 incontinence sufferers in the UK to understand more about the needs of people living with incontinence. In the UK, 35% of people say they suffer daily with symptoms. With over 50% of those saying it impacts their social life. This can lead to issues with mental health and a lack of awareness around more serious conditions.

Causes and symptoms of incontinence

The causes of incontinence symptoms differ largely between men and women.

For males, common causes of urinary incontinence can be infection, constipation or prostate problems. Alcohol intake was a significant factor with 43% of men saying this caused them to have leakages. 

Alcohol also acts as an irritant in the bladder, which can make overactive bladder symptoms worse. If you believe you may be suffering it could be worth trying to cut back on alcohol consumption to see if this has any impact on your symptoms.

Along with alcohol, caffeinated and fizzy drinks, along with spicy and citrus foods can lead to symptoms and cause urinary incontinence to become worse.

In females, stress and urge incontinence are the most common types. 79% of respondents claimed that laughing and sneezing caused them the most accidents.

Actions such as coughing and sneezing puts repetitive strain on the pelvic floor. This causes muscles to weaken and leads to accidents. This is much higher in women for reasons such as pregnancy, childbirth and the menopause.

Types of incontinence

There are a range of different types of incontinence that can be triggered by various lifestyle factors or major life events such as pregnancy or surgery. The main types are detailed below:

  • Stress incontinence - when your bladder is put under stress when coughing or laughing and urine leaks out

  • Urinary incontinence - the general term used to describe the unintentional passing of urine

  • Urge incontinence - when urine leaks out when you feel a sudden urge to urinate

  • Overflow incontinence - the term used to describe incontinence when you’re unable to empty your bladder fully, leading to leakage. This can also be associated with the bowel if you're suffering with constipation

  • Bowel incontinence - when you experience accidents due to problems controlling your bowels

Who does incontinence effect?

It's a common misconception that incontinence affects only the older generation of women. However, it is a real-life problem for people of all ages - both male and female.

It’s a condition that often remains a secret for many people with almost a third of suffers (29%) saying that they haven’t told anyone about their condition.

Cases of incontinence, particularly in men, are thought to be under reported due to the taboo nature of the topic. Our research tells us that over 64% of men have suffered from incontinence in public with almost 53% of males also saying they didn’t feel like they could seek medical help due to embarrassment.

Over 40 per cent of all respondents don’t even feel that they can confide in their family about their incontinence and this figure increased to 68% saying they wouldn’t discuss the topic within a group of friends.

Social life, mental health and incontinence

Although it’s not a life-threatening condition, incontinence has a physical and psychological effect on sufferers.

This can lead to well-known mental health issues in a range of people. From the respondents surveyed, almost 40% stated that their incontinence has had a negative effect on their mental health. 

Our survey found that half of sufferers find that their symptoms and conditions affect their social life, with almost half of respondents completely cancelling plans because of incontinence symptoms or the fear of experiencing symptoms outside their home.

Incontinence at work

Incontinence symptoms don’t disappear when you’re in the workplace.

Research suggests that 45% of people have experienced issues in the workplace. Unfortunately, only 8% felt comfortable speaking about the issues with work colleagues.

So how can employers help with incontinence?

More than a third (36%) of respondents say they would welcome a situation where talk around the topic is more open and accepted.

28% of respondents would consider more online resources as a step forward in receiving help and improving their incontinence symptoms. Whereas 41% would consider better incontinence management products as a step forward in supporting the management of the issue.

Incontinence treatment and advice

Remarkably, 44% of people have suffered from incontinence for over a year. 

50% of people have never sought any kind of medical support for the condition meaning their knowledge of both incontinence and methods on how to treat and manage it is impacted. The majority of people suffer in silence rather than address the subject with treatment or management techniques.

Janet Chaseley, a Specialist Nurse on the Continence Care Team at Benenden Hospital, said:

“Urinary incontinence is a common problem that can affect women and men of any age. It can severely impact on their quality of life but can often be easily managed and treated. Don’t feel embarrassed about talking to your GP, as this is the first step to actively managing your symptoms.”

How can Benenden Health help with continence care?

Benenden Health offers many services that can help people understand incontinence better. 

From day one of membership, you receive access to our GP 24/7 helpline. You can speak to a doctor 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

Also from day one, Benenden Health members get access to our Mental Health Helpline which means you can speak to a qualified therapist for support and help if you’re feeling anxious.

Incontinence doesn’t have to impact your day-to-day life and with Benenden Health you’ll get sympathetic and confidential support should you encounter any symptoms. 

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on 22nd June 2021. Next review date: 22nd June 2022.