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Chronic Illness and Incontinence: What's the Connection?

Like incontinence, chronic illnesses are common: in the United States, 1 in 2 adults is thought to have a chronic health condition. But did you know that there may be a connection between chronic illness and urinary incontinence?


Both urinary incontinence and chronic illnesses can be challenging and, at times, isolating to deal with -- but it's important to remember that you are not alone in facing either of these problems. If you have a chronic illness and are facing urinary incontinence, there are many other people like you who are dealing with the same issue.


You may be especially embarrassed if you are a young person dealing with chronic illness and incontinence. After all, many times, incontinence is thought of as an "old person's problem." Yet if you have a chronic condition that affects your bladder, you and many others may experience incontinence at any age.


Below, we explore some of the conditions that can lead to urinary incontinence as well as how you can cope with incontinence caused by any of these conditions at home.

Recurring Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are a common problem that happens to most of us at least once in our lives. However, it appears that some people are more prone to UTIs than others. When UTIs occur twice in six months or three times in a year, a doctor may diagnose you with recurring UTIs. This is more likely if you are a woman, due to the shortened distance between the rectum and the urethra; if you have another chronic illness that suppresses your immune system; and if you use a catheter due to another chronic condition.


UTIs can make you need to urinate frequently, even when you have just gone. Often, you will only urinate in small amounts, but the urge to go can be intense and difficult to resist. It's easy to see, then, how a UTI can lead to incontinence. In people who have incontinence due to other chronic health conditions, UTIs are also more common.


There's clearly a strong connection between UTIs and urinary incontinence -- but how can you prevent them? There are many things you can do to help prevent chronic UTIs at home. If a doctor sees that you have recurring UTIs, they may prescribe you preventative antibiotics to help ward them off. It's also important to practice good hygiene by wiping from front to back in women and back to front in men, as well as by urinating after sexual intercourse to clear the urethra of any bacteria. Finally, there is some evidence that supplements containing cranberry can help to prevent urinary tract infections -- but the same is not true of drinking cranberry juice; in fact, due to the sugar content, drinking cranberry juice to prevent UTIs may do more harm than good for your body!

Interstitial Cystitis

Interstitial cystitis (IC) is an uncomfortable chronic bladder condition that causes a range of urinary symptoms. IC can affect men, women, and children of any age or race; studies have found that there is no difference between these factors in the prevalence of IC. People with IC experience pelvic pain, pressure and discomfort when they urinate. They may have increased urinary frequency and stronger urges to go than the average person. Unlike a UTI, however, this is not caused by harmful bacteria in the urethra. Instead, IC is caused by ulcers or pinpoint hemorrhages in the bladder, which can lead to chronic inflammation and urinary pain.


IC often overlaps with overactive bladder (OAB), an incontinence condition where small amounts of urine are released when a person feels a strong urge to go. As many as 1 in 4 IC patients may experience OAB -- which, in addition to the pain of IC, can cause feelings of embarrassment or shame. Interstitial cystitis is thought to be more likely in patients with other chronic health conditions as well, including migraines, allergies, endometriosis and irritable bowel syndrome. Patients with IC are also more likely to have other chronic pain conditions such as vulvodynia, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.


You can manage the symptoms of IC by making simple lifestyle changes. Changing your diet is one of the most important things you can do for your IC; many people find that certain foods and beverages trigger their bladder symptoms. Citrus, coffee, spicy foods and carbonated drinks are some of the common culprits behind IC flares. Your doctor might also prescribe medications like tricyclic antidepressants or antihistamines to help control the pain you experience with IC.

Conditions of the Central Nervous System

Of all the chronic conditions linked to incontinence, those affecting the central nervous system are some of the most common. In the elderly, conditions causing dementia -- including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease -- frequently lead to urinary incontinence. In fact, in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease, incontinence may affect 60 to 70 percent of patients. Incontinence in patients with dementia can result from loss of mobility (patients cannot get to the bathroom in time), inability to react quickly enough to the urge to urinate, inability to find or recognize the toilet or inability to communicate the need to urinate. This can be one of the most heart-wrenching signs of late-stage dementia, leading sufferers and their caregivers to feel a lack of dignity.


Another disease of the central nervous system affecting patients of all ages is multiple sclerosis (MS). Patients with MS experience inflammation of the central nervous system, which damages the protective covering, or myelin, that surrounds the nerves. Over time, this progressive disease leads to challenges with balance, bladder control, mobility, speech and swallowing, among other symptoms. When MS disrupts the nerve impulses that signal the need to urinate, incontinence is a frequent result. Patients with MS may experience nocturia (needing to wake up to go frequently at night) and urinary hesitancy in addition to bladder leakage. These symptoms can worsen as the challenges of MS continue to progress.


In patients with conditions of the central nervous system, incontinence often cannot be helped. As a result, care for these conditions should include managing incontinence while preserving as much of the patient's dignity as possible. People with dementia or MS should make sure they have someone they can trust to talk to about their struggles with urinary incontinence. Using protection, such as Attends Incontinence Pads, can also help manage the problem privately without attracting unwanted attention.

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