Incontinence and what it could mean

Learn more about the different forms of urinary incontinence and how to recognize the signs of each


If you are “of a certain age,” you’re probably familiar with the little accidents that can happen if you sneeze suddenly or laugh for too long. You make a joke about getting older and try to move on without anyone noticing. Is it just a part of growing older or something more serious?

It could be urinary incontinence, otherwise known as loss of bladder control.

Here’s how it works. Urine is stored in your bladder. When you urinate, muscles in your bladder flex and tighten to move the urine into a tube called the urethra. The muscles in and around your bladder relax, which allows the urine to pass out of your body. When this process doesn’t work correctly or the muscles relax at the wrong time, you may experience urine leakage, or urinary incontinence.

Male Bladder

Female Bladder

Source, National Institutes of Health

As you grow older, the amount of urine your bladder can hold is reduced. The muscles in and around your bladder may not work as well as they once did. The urge to urinate is often more difficult to control and comes more frequently. Leakage is not unusual.

Urinary incontinence (UI), is all-too-common in people over the age of 50 but it doesn’t have to be a standard part of aging. If any of the following types of incontinence describe your situation, see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment before symptoms worsen. Addressing the root cause may give you relief and more control of your bladder.

Stress incontinence

With stress incontinence, you experience urine leakage when you put sudden or unexpected pressure on your lower stomach muscles or bladder. The leaking can range from a very small amount to a complete emptying of your bladder.

  • Commonly associated with activities like sneezing, laughing, or exercising
  • Occurs when your pelvic muscles are weakened like during childbirth or surgery
  • Typically affects more women than men

A wide range of treatments, including specialized exercises and bladder training, is available to help relieve your symptoms and address their underlying cause. Talk to your doctor to determine if any of them are right for you.

Urge incontinence

Urge incontinence is characterized by a sudden, immediate need to urinate.

  • Typically need to urinate more frequently, including throughout the night
  • Most common among senior citizens
  • May be a sign of an overactive bladder (bladder spasms) or urinary tract infection.

Even if there is not pain (like a typical UTI), urge incontinence should be addressed immediately with your physician to examine whether you have a more serious issue like diabetes or a neurological condition.

Overflow incontinence

Overflow incontinence happens when you have frequent or constant leakage of small amounts of urine.

  • Is the result of an over-full bladder that doesn’t empty completely
  • May be a sign of enlarged prostate or tumor in men
  • Diabetes or certain medications may cause symptoms

Your doctor can help determine if something like an enlarged prostate is prompting your incontinence issue. Addressing the cause of your condition brings relief from your symptoms and gives you peace of mind that you’ve begun the process to improve your health.

Addressing the cause of your condition brings relief from your symptoms and gives you peace of mind that you’ve begun the process to improve your health.

Functional incontinence

If you have normal urine control but another issue prevents you from getting to the bathroom in time, it could be functional incontinence.

  • Associated with arthritis and other conditions that limit your mobility
  • Loss of urine ranges from small amounts to fully emptying your bladder

Getting care for the condition that is causing your incontinence usually alleviates your symptoms. Your doctor can identify the specifics of the health issues contributing to your incontinence. Talk to your health care team to learn about treatment that improves your mobility, which in turn improves your ability to make it to the restroom in time.

Mixed incontinence

Mixed incontinence is exactly what the name implies—a combination of more than one type of incontinence.

  • Most common combination is stress and urge incontinence
  • May be more challenging to treat than a single type incontinence

Any type of urinary incontinence should be addressed with your doctor to rule out infections or risk factors for more serious conditions. Depending on the diagnosis and root cause, it is likely that treatment can help. You don’t have to miss out on any more of your life.

Find a doctor

Uncertain bladder control is not an inevitable part of growing older. Find a doctor that offers diagnosis and treatment for all the types of urinary incontinence in our provider directory. Or use one of the regional directories below:






Related resources

Mythbusters video: Surgery for an enlarged prostate will make you incontinent and impotent

Pelvic Health: Leave Your Symptoms Behind

The UroLift System: A Proven Therapy for Enlarged Prostate

Incontinence at any age: What you should know

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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