What is urinary incontinence?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Urinary incontinence is uncontrollable urination. You may not be able to control your bladder, which in turn can cause you to urinate unexpectedly. In some cases, this can be a minor leak—you laugh really hard at a funny joke and it causes you to urinate a tiny bit. This is known as stress incontinence—something stresses the bladder. In other cases, you may suddenly have to urinate and must do so immediately, without enough time to make it to the bathroom. This is known as urge incontinence. In rare cases, people can have gross total incontinence, in which the person has no ability to control their bladder, and is usually the result of a birth defect.

Urinary incontinence is the involuntary and uncontrollable loss of urine that can range from mild leaking to more serious accidents. It's often temporary and is almost always due to an underlying medical condition.

Take the RealAge Test!

Urinary incontinence (UI) is the loss of bladder control. It's more common in women but can affect men, too. There are two main types:

  • Stress incontinence is the more common type. It happens when you sneeze, cough, exercise or laugh. This type is most often is caused by weakened pelvic floor muscles due to pregnancy, childbirth, obesity or prostate surgery.
  • Urge incontinence is a type that makes you always need to go to the bathroom. It can be caused by damage to the bladder’s nerves, the nervous system or muscles. It’s most commonly a complication caused by multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and stroke.

This content originally appeared on

Urinary incontinence involves involuntary leakage of urine from the bladder.

Dr. Marc B. Garnick, MD
Hematologist & Oncologist

There are three main types of urinary incontinence:

  • Stress incontinence is characterized by the leakage of small amounts of urine when you cough, sneeze, lift a heavy object, exercise, or otherwise put pressure on your bladder. One cause of stress incontinence is a weakened or damaged sphincter. Prostate surgery, such as transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP) or prostatectomy, can cause such damage.
  • Urge incontinence occurs when the bladder develops a spasm. It suddenly contracts and expels urine. Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)—enlarged prostate—seems to leave the bladder prone to such irritation.
  • Overflow incontinence is the result of partial obstruction, such as an enlarged prostate. Because the bladder cannot empty completely, urine may dribble frequently from the urethra. It may also occur when the bladder is severely weakened, which may also result from BPH if the bladder muscle becomes thick from straining to urinate.

Urinary incontinence is a fancy name for the accidental release of urine. It comes about when something interferes with the control of urine. You can have trouble holding it in (urge incontinence), you can get up a zillion times during the night (nocturia) and dribble on underwear, and/or every cough or sneeze can leave a little surprise (stress incontinence).

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Urinary incontinence is the term doctors use for loss of bladder control. In other words, sometimes your bladder leaks urine before you can make it to the bathroom. You may not realize it, but your body uses certain muscles to hold urine in the bladder until you have a convenient time and place to release it.

A couple of different things can happen to those muscles that can cause urinary incontinence. They may become too weak, which could cause you to have an accident when you sneeze or laugh, for instance. Or those important bladder-control muscles may become easily excited and overactive. In that case, you may get frequent uncontrollable urges to pee.

While it's not something most people like to talk about—or hear about— urinary incontinence is a common problem. Your doctor can suggest strategies for keeping urinary incontinence under control.

Continue Learning about Urinary Incontinence

Overactive Bladder: The Importance of a Voiding Schedule
Overactive Bladder: The Importance of a Voiding Schedule
When treating incontinence, many health experts begin with behavior therapy through which the bladder can be trained to empty at specific times. Doing...
Read More
What causes dribbling of urine in women?
Lee's Summit Medical CenterLee's Summit Medical Center
Dribbling of urine in women can be caused by the following factors: overactive bladder muscles w...
More Answers
Why do I pee a little when I sneeze, laugh and cough?
Lee's Summit Medical CenterLee's Summit Medical Center
If you pee a little when you sneeze, laugh and cough, this is called stress incontinence. Stress inc...
More Answers
What Are the Different Types of Urinary Incontinence?
What Are the Different Types of Urinary Incontinence?

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.