What is urinary incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is the accidental release of urine or leaking urine. It can happen when you cough, laugh, sneeze, or jog. Or you may have a sudden need to go to the bathroom but cannot get there in time. Bladder control problems are very common, especially among women. They usually do not cause major health problems, but they can be embarrassing.

Incontinence can be a short-term problem caused by a urinary tract infection, a medication, or constipation. In these situations, it gets better when you treat the problem that is causing it.

In this decision aid we are focusing on the problem of ongoing urinary incontinence. Incontinence is often treatable but most women who have incontinence suffer in silence as they do not seek help and health care providers do not regularly ask women about their bladders. Incontinence is not part of normal aging.


The main symptom is the accidental release of urine.

  • If you have stress incontinence, you may leak a small to medium amount of urine when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise, or do similar things.
  • If you have urge incontinence, you may feel a sudden urge to urinate and the need to urinate often. With this type of bladder control problem, you may leak a larger amount of urine that can soak your clothes or run down your legs.
  • If you have mixed incontinence, you may have symptoms of both problems.

What causes urinary incontinence (or leaking)?

Bladder control problems may be caused by weak muscles in the pelvic floor, problems or damage either in the urinary tract or in the nerves that control urination. Stress urinary incontinence and urge urinary incontinence are the most common types of urinary incontinence.

  1. Stress urinary incontinence leakage usually occurs when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise, or do other activities and is due to increased pressure in the tummy and the weakened urinary sphincter and/or pelvic floor muscles. It can be caused by childbirth, weight gain, or other conditions that make the pelvic floor muscles weak. When these muscles cannot support your bladder/urethra properly, the bladder may drop down into the vagina.
  2. Urge urinary incontinence is caused by an overactive bladder muscle that pushes urine out of the bladder. It may be caused by irritation of the bladder, emotional stress, or health conditions that affect the brain. Urge urinary incontinence often goes along with a sudden unexpected urge to urinate and is not related to activity.
  3. Mixed urinary incontinence is a combination of urge and stress urinary incontinence.