What are the symptoms of urinary incontinence?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

The main symptom of urinary incontinence is an uncontrollable bladder that leads to unwanted urination. In some cases, this can be a minor dribble. In others, the leak may seep through clothing on a regular basis.

Ja-Hong Kim, MD
The three main symptoms of urinary incontinence (the involuntary leakage of urine) are the following:
  • Urgency: When you feel as though you just can’t wait and you have to rush right away
  • Frequency: Urinating or voiding more than eight times or more in 24 hours
  • Nocturia: Waking up at night more than twice to urinate
Incontinence can be due to stress-related activities, including having a good laugh, coughing, bending down and lifting something or even just standing up. Any of these actions could cause some kind of leakage. On the other hand, incontinence could be caused by a bladder-related issue.

Symptoms of urinary incontinence can range from leakage of urine to strong urges to urinate that are difficult to control. There are five types of urinary incontinence: stress, urge, overflow, functional and mixed incontinence.

  • Stress incontinence is urine leakage from sudden pressure on the lower abdominal muscles from coughing, laughing, lifting or exercising.
  • Urge incontinence occurs when the need to urinate comes on very suddenly before one can get to the toilet.
  • Overflow incontinence results from an overfilled bladder that one is unable to completely empty, which leads to uncontrollable leakage of small amounts of urine.
  • Functional incontinence occurs when one has normal urine control but has difficulty getting to the bathroom due to a mobility issue.
  • Many people often have more than one type of incontinence, resulting in mixed incontinence.
There are three main types of urinary incontinence – stress urinary incontinence, urge incontinence and functional incontinence. Stress urinary incontinence, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), occurs when the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder and urethra weaken, allowing urine to leak when pressure is applied to those muscles, as during sneezing, coughing, laughing or exercising. Urge incontinence, commonly referred to as “overactive bladder,” results from too-frequent contractions of the bladder or dysfunctional nerves signaling the need to urinate often. Functional incontinence results from cognitive impairment, as well as neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke and delirium.  These three types of incontinence may be encountered at different phases of a woman’s life: Stress incontinence usually follows childbearing and childbirth; urge incontinence happens more often around menopause; and functional incontinence occurs later in life. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.