The taboo of incontinence

Incontinence is one of the last health taboos in modern society. Embarrassment stops many people from accessing the NHS services that can help them.

Why is incontinence so embarrassing?

Incontinence is surprisingly common. It's estimated that one in four of us will have a problem with bladder control at some time, and one in 10 will have problems with bowel control. This means that more people have incontinence than asthma, diabetes and epilepsy combined.

Incontinence 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.

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.

What is stress incontinence?

This 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.

What is urge incontinence?

Urge incontinence 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.

What is mixed incontinence?

This type of incontinence is quite common and is a combination of stress and urge incontinence.

What is overflow incontinence?

This is typified by 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.

What is bowel (faecal) incontinence?

Bowel incontinence is thought to affect one in 10 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, a spinal injury or tearing after childbirth.

Read about how to get NHS help for incontinence.


Page last reviewed: 13/01/2015

Next review due: 28/02/2017


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 39 ratings

All ratings

19  ratings
8  ratings
5  ratings
0  ratings
7  ratings

Add your rating


Bowel incontinence is more common than you might think. It's a symptom of many conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome and bowel cancer, and is a common problem for women following childbirth.

Media last reviewed: 10/07/2015

Next review due: 10/05/2018

Prostate health

Every man has one, it's important to their sex life, yet few men know anything about their prostate or what can go wrong with it


Find out about HRT, early menopause, supporting your partner and how to deal with symptoms


Get advice on relieving symptoms, living with incontinence and where to go for help