Incontinence is one of the last health taboos in modern society. Embarrassment stops many people from accessing the NHS services that can help them.
Yet incontinence is surprisingly common. The Bladder and Bowel Foundation (B&BF) estimates that one in four of us will have a problem with bladder control at some time, and one in ten will have problems with bowel control. This means that more people have incontinence than asthma, diabetes and epilepsy combined.
"We know that many people keep their incontinence a secret, even from their loved ones, for many years," says Gill Turton, spokeswoman for B&BF. "Yet this is a common problem that can almost always be improved. Our confidential telephone nurse helpline, on 0845 345 0165, is a good starting point for anyone who is too embarrassed to see a doctor or nurse."
Dispelling the myths
Incontinence is often seen as a woman's problem, but that's not the reality. Women are more likely than men to have bladder incontinence (32% of the female population experience it compared to 13% of the male population), but men are just as likely as women to develop a bowel control problem.
It's also a myth that incontinence only happens to older people. While it's more likely, though not inevitable, that you may lose bladder control as you get older, anyone can develop symptoms at any age. Almost 5 million people in the UK under the age of 24 are thought to have experienced a bladder control problem. The same number of young people are thought to have had bowel incontinence.
Types of incontinence
It's normal to go to the toilet four to seven times a day and pass up to a pint of urine at a time. People with incontinence get the urge to go far more often and pass a lot less urine each time.
is when you leak urine after sneezing, laughing, coughing, lifting something or while doing exercise
. It happens when the muscles around the bladder (the pelvic floor muscles) become slack. It's common after childbirth, pelvic surgery and the menopause
is when you have a sudden urge to go to the toilet and can't hold it in. It's often the result of a condition called overactive bladder, where the bladder becomes 'twitchy' and wants to squeeze out urine even if it isn't full or you're not ready. An overactive bladder can be caused by diabetes
, infection, bladder stones
, neurological conditions (such as multiple sclerosis
), Alzheimer's disease
and spinal injury. In men, prostate problems
can cause an overactive bladder, but for many people the cause is never found.
is quite common and is a combination of stress and urge incontinence.
is a constant dribble of urine, which you often don't notice. If you're aware of it, you'll feel the need to go to the toilet very frequently.
Bowel (faecal) incontinence
is thought to affect one in ten people at some point. It can be a bowel accident, when you don't reach the toilet in time, or leaking from the bowel that you're unaware of. Bowel incontinence can be caused by neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, spinal injury and tearing after childbirth.