What is incontinence?
Incontinence is where there is an involuntary or accidental loss of urine (urinary incontinence) or faecal matter (faecal incontinence). It’s an extremely common condition, thought to affect more than 300 million people worldwide.
In the UK, it’s estimated that urinary incontinence affects around 13% of British women and approximately 5% of men, while faecal incontinence may affect an additional 2% or more of the population.
Despite its enormous prevalence, it is a condition that is very much under-reported, primarily because it can be associated with feelings of embarrassment and social unacceptability. But whilst such feelings might be understandable, the unspoken nature of the condition can be very harmful because it supports the myth that incontinence is a rare problem that only ever affects 'other people.'
What causes incontinence?
Incontinence can occur due to a wide variety of causes, ranging from paralysis to the effects of childbirth or medication, and as a result it can affect anyone and at any age. The very young and the elderly might require support from a family member, although many adults will opt to manage the condition themselves. In either case, there are numerous products, exercises and techniques that can help to make life easier and more dignified for all concerned.
It is important to remember that incontinence is not in itself a disease but a symptom of one or more underlying problems. It is certainly not an inevitable part of ageing. It can often be improved or even cured depending on the type of incontinence and, even when it can’t, the right aids and treatment can help to manage it effectively.
What to do if you think your loved one is becoming incontinent
Many people choose to keep their incontinence a secret through shame or embarrassment, take care to remind your loved one that they’re not alone and there are things that can be done to help.
This is an incredibly sensitive topic to broach, but it’s important to encourage them to visit their GP for help. Incontinence isn’t just “one of those things” that happens to everyone, often there’s a reason behind it or even an undiagnosed condition that could be treated. Their GP will be able to offer advice, support, and potentially even treatment options to help.
What are the different types of incontinence?
There are a variety of different types of incontinence, including:
- Stress incontinence
Despite the name, this type of incontinence isn’t caused by stress. It refers to bladder leakage that happens when the bladder is put under pressure, for example, when coughing, laughing, or sneezing
- Urge incontinence
This type of incontinence is where an intense urge to urinate comes on very quickly and there’s very little time to get to the toilet – perhaps only a few seconds
- Mixed incontinence
This is a combination of stress and urge incontinence, where the person experiences symptoms of both types
- Overflow incontinence
This is where the bladder doesn’t completely empty. The person may find themselves passing small amounts of urine often but feel like their bladder is never empty
- Total incontinence
This is a severe and continuous type of incontinence where they experience a lot of bladder leakage
- Faecal or bowel incontinence
This type of incontinence involves issues with controlling the bowel, whether that’s unexpected leakage or the sudden urge for a bowel movement that can’t be controlled
Practical aids to help with incontinence
There is a wide range of aids and equipment to help those living with incontinence, from the “classic” pads and pants right the way through to urinals, bed pans, and commodes. It depends a little on what type of incontinence your loved one is living with as to what will be most useful for them, but the following should give you a place to start.
Protective pads and pants
This is probably the most commonly used type of incontinence aid as it offers people a way to protect their clothing or furniture from any accidents, while also allowing them to get on with their lives.
Incontinence pads that fit in the underwear are an inconspicuous and effective way to help catch any leaks from urinary incontinence. Some incontinence pads are suitable for faecal incontinence, but it’s worth reading the product description carefully to make sure this is the case before purchasing.
When buying incontinence pads, it can be tempting to get the highest absorbency to offer the most protection, however, it’s really important to get an absorbency level to match their needs. Incontinence pads are designed to absorb moisture, so if the absorbency level is too high the pad will end up wicking away moisture from the skin, which can make them sore. Incontinence pads are available for men and women in different sizes.
Incontinence pants are also available and you can get ones that have been specifically designed for men, for women, and for children. These a discreet incontinence aids with some designed to look like ordinary underwear. Washable incontinence pants are a great option for those with urinary incontinence, while those living with faecal incontinence may find the disposable pants more useful as they can be thrown away after use.
Bedding and furniture protection
One of the most obvious problems associated with any form of incontinence is the risk of soiling beds, chairs and other items of furniture. Luckily, there are a range of incontinence aids available to help with this.
Seat pads are washable pads that sit on top of the chair cushion or seat to protect the furniture against any unexpected leaks. Handily they can also be used in cars and with wheelchairs for that extra layer of protection when they’re out and about.
If incontinence is an issue for them more at night-time, they may find bed pads useful. Bed pans are designed to lay across the bed and quickly absorb any moisture, helping to protect the mattress from leaks while your loved one sleeps. You can get either washable bed pads or disposable bed pads, which one is right will depend on a few factors, including whether or not your loved one will be able to keep up with washing the bed pad as needed.
Toileting and access
For some, the main challenge associated with incontinence is simply a matter of getting to a toilet in time. In certain cases, this may be due to a medical condition that allows them very little warning of the need to use the toilet, but others may have mobility problems that mean it just takes longer to find a suitable toilet.
There are a few toileting aids that could help with this. A key for disabled toilets would allow your loved one access to locked public toilets across the UK as part of the National Key Scheme – very useful when they’re out and about. Alternatively, a portable urinal that can be used in an emergency might be an option to consider.
If they find it difficult to get to the bathroom on a night-time, then a commode may be a useful option to help them out. There are a variety of commode styles available, including discreet commodes that look like ordinary bedroom furniture. These give your loved one a way to relieve themselves without rushing to the bathroom and risking a fall.
Further help and support
Your loved one’s first place to turn should always be their GP who may refer them on to their local continence care service or run tests to make sure there’s nothing untoward going on.
There are also a variety of support groups and charities who offer support to those living with incontinence:
You can find our full range of incontinence aids here.