The Challenges of Living with Incontinence

Pamela Cannaday by Pamela Cannaday | Licensed since 2011
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This article was updated on: 09/10/2018

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What is incontinence?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the definition of incontinence is the accidental leakage of urine or losing bladder control. Incontinence is a common problem, especially as people age. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make it any less challenging if incontinence affects you or someone you love. If you’re a caregiver or facing this challenge on your own, here are some tips from the NIH for handling the practical and emotional difficulties that often accompany incontinence.

According to the Urology Care Foundation, between one-quarter and one-third of Americans, both men and women, are dealing with some level of incontinence.

What causes incontinence?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) website states that several different causes of incontinence are possible; for example, nerve damage or weak bladder muscles. For men, an enlarged prostate gland can block and affect the flow of urine. For women, events such as hormone loss due to menopause, or damage from pregnancy and childbirth, can contribute to incontinence.

Are there any treatments for incontinence?

The NIH recommends that in general, the safest and simplest incontinence solutions should be tried first.

If you’re a caregiver, you might want to guide your loved one in practicing “timed voiding” – taking him or her to the bathroom every hour or so. Other ideas from the NIH to avoid incontinence that you can try at home include:

  • Lifestyle changes; for example, losing excess weight and stopping smoking.
  • Avoiding caffeine, chocolate, and alcohol
  • Avoiding heavy lifting
  • Achieving “regular” bowel movements (avoiding constipation)

Although the above suggestions to help avoid to avoid incontinence may be doable at home, it’s best to discuss your loved one’s incontinence with her doctor and ask whether the above suggestions would be appropriate and how to get there. For example, if constipation is a problem, you may want to ask the doctor to recommend dietary changes or supplements.

If you or your loved one is capable of them, here are more recommendations from the NIH:

  • Try pelvic muscle exercises, sometimes called Kegel exercises. These involve tightening the muscles that control your urine flow.
  • Biofeedback may help increase awareness of signals from the body.

Again, consult your doctor before trying these techniques.

Depending on the cause, your doctor may recommend incontinence treatment options such as medication or surgery. Sometimes, however, the only option is self-management as described above to help minimize the effects of incontinence on you or your loved one. If incontinence is an issue for you, or someone for whom you are a caregiver, talk to your doctor to explore your options.

How can I manage the physical challenges of incontinence?

The NIH and Everyday Health recommend these tips for some of the most common physical challenges for people with incontinence:

  • Take precautions with your skin. You or your caregiver should wash the area thoroughly after an episode and apply a skin barrier cream to protect against exposure to urine or feces.
  • Arrange your bedroom so you can easily get to the toilet at night, or use a bedside commode or urinal. A raised toilet seat or handrails may make it easier to avoid accidents. Keep a waterproof mat next to your bed.
  • Stock all bathrooms with incontinence supplies, wipes, and deodorized disposal bags, preferably hidden in a cabinet to maintain privacy.
  • Use odor eliminators such as candles, potpourri, essential oils, and sprays to keep the home fresh. A black light can help you spot soiled areas you may have missed on your carpets, rugs, and furniture.
  • Wash any incontinence equipment frequently and use white vinegar to neutralize odors. Pour some white vinegar into the washer when you launder soiled clothes and bedding.
  • Don’t restrict fluids during the day; that concentrates the urine, making it more irritating to skin, as well as increasing its odor. Do cut back on fluids in the evening, though, to reduce the number of times you or your loved one has to get up during the night.
  • Medscape recommends caution when using absorbent pads. For example, they can make a person feel drier when there is moisture present, which can lead to skin breakdown.

This article is for general information only and may not apply to your circumstances. This article should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your medical provider regarding diagnosis or treatment for a health condition, including decisions about the correct medication for your condition, as well as prior to undertaking any specific exercise or dietary routine.

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