Bladder control problems in women

Also known as urinary incontinence or urinary leakage

Bladder control problems (when you pee unexpectedly) are commen in women and are often a sign that one of the mechanisms which keeps us dry is not working correctly. Most women with urinary leakage find they can overcome it or improve their control, but many do not seek help.

Key facts:

  1. In New Zealand, it is estimated that almost 200,000 women have urinary leakage at least twice a month.
  2. Bladder control problems are 4 times more common in women than men, with many women experiencing some degree of lost control over their urinary actions.
  3. Two-thirds of women who experience bladder control problems do not seek help as they see this as a 'normal' female problem and think nothing can be done about it.
  4. However, 70% of women with bladder control problems can become dry or experience significant improvement with the right treatment.

young woman looking out a window

What causes bladder control problems in women?

Factors that contribute to bladder control problems include:

  • pregnancy and childbirth
  • constipation
  • medications including prescribed medicines, over-the-counter medicines and herbal supplements 
  • chronic cough
  • urinary infection (consult your GP)
  • diseases which affect the nervous system and muscular control
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • reduction in hormones after menopause (when your period stops).

What are the signs of bladder control problems?

The two types of incontinence most common in women are stress incontinence and urge incontinence. 

Stress incontinence
is the spontaneous, uncontrolled leakage of small amounts of urine with exertion such as coughing, sneezing, straining, lifting or playing sport (in the absence of any desire to go to the toilet).

Urge incontinence
causes a sudden, overwhelming urge to urinate. If a person is unable to get to the toilet in time, and experiences an involuntary loss of urine they are said to have "urge incontinence".

Many women experience a combination of urge and stress incontinence.

What can I do if I have bladder control problems?

Bladder control problems don't have to hamper your lifestyle. Talk to your doctor for advice or contact the New Zealand Continence Association.

Issues with bladder control can be annoying but there are a few simple measures that can help women with mild to moderate bladder control problems, such as:

  • Reducing coffee, tea and alcohol intake.
  • Reducing intake of bladder irritants such as fizzy drinks, fruit juices and artificial sweeteners.
  • Doing pelvic floor muscle exercises which can strengthen the muscles that empty the bladder – 7 out of 10 women with stress incontinence can become dry, or significantly improved by doing pelvic floor exercises.
  • Training the bladder to be able to hold more urine without leaks. Most urge incontinence can be improved by bladder training, which is sometimes combined with medication. 
  • Using continence products to help you manage urine leaks.

See self-care for bladder control problems for more detailed information on pelvic floor exercises and bladder training. 


If you experience ongoing problems with urinary incontinence which is not helped by the self-care measures above, your doctor may prescribe you an anticholinergic medication, such as oxybutynin, solifenacin, tolterodine. These act on the bladder muscles to help improve bladder control.

Learn more

Bladder control problems in women NZ Continence Association, 2015
Promoting good bladder and bowel health  NZ Continence Association, 2015
Urinary problems NZ Ministry of Health

Reviewed By: Andreea Dumitru, Senior RN from CCDHB, SIDU - Capital & Coast & Lower Hutt Last reviewed: 31 Oct 2015