Are you noticing that a little bit of pee leaks out when you get the giggles? What about during your morning jog? Do you have to get up to use the bathroom several times throughout the night? If this sounds familiar, you should be aware of urinary incontinence, or loss of bladder control. While you might think it’s an issue you couldn’t possibly deal with until you’re older, the truth is that anyone of any age can experience urinary incontinence.
According to the Urology Care Foundation, anywhere from 25% to 33% of American adults have some form of urinary incontinence, & it affects twice as many people with vaginas as people with penises. While your urinary incontinence risk does generally increase as you get older, you can experience it as early as your 20s—but a lot of young people assume they’re alone in their experience.
Sarah McAchran, MD, urogynecologist & associate professor of urology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health, tells SELF that there’s a misconception that incontinence is an “old lady disease.” This spikes the effects of the stigma that younger people with the condition sometimes feel. “I think it’s difficult for people to talk about because there’s a lot of shame associated with it,” Dr. McAchran says. “If someone is in their 30s, they may think they’re the only person who has it.”
First, a little urinary incontinence 101.
Let’s back up a bit: Urinary incontinence refers to any leaking of urine that you can’t control, according to the Urology Care Foundation. It’s a physical problem, yes, but it can also affect a person’s emotional well-being. After all, it can interfere with your daily life & cause you to avoid activities you enjoy because you may worry about leaking in public or needing to be close to a bathroom, which can set off a ton of stress.
That’s because incontinence is often caused by “pelvic floor trauma” from all types of causes, including childbirth, menopause, hysterectomy, chronic coughing, constipation, & the list goes on, according to experts at Yale Medicine. Basically, anything that puts extra strain on or causes dysfunction of the pelvic floor muscles—the group of muscles that support the bladder, urethra, uterus, & bowels—can lead to urinary incontinence. Plus, the bladder & nearby muscles tend to just naturally weaken with age, per the US National Library of Medicine.
There are two main types of urinary incontinence: stress incontinence & urge incontinence, Suzette Sutherl&, MD, director of female urology & associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, tells SELF.
Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) means the pelvic muscles let urine leak out uncontrollably, usually due to some kind of pressure—like when you cough, sneeze, or jump. “You’re not strong enough down below for whatever reason & a little bit of urine comes out.” Dr. Sutherl& explains.
Urge incontinence, also called overactive bladder, is when you feel the urge to urinate frequently. Some people may experience a combination of SUI & overactive bladder (known as mixed incontinence). Overflow incontinence, when your bladder doesn’t fully empty, & functional incontinence, when a physical or mental impairment makes it hard to get to the bathroom, are other less common types.
Urinary incontinence in your 20s
Welcome to adulting! SUI & overactive bladder can occur at any age, even in your 20s. Incontinence can be set off by certain lifestyle habits, like drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, & health issues like urinary tract infections, hormonal changes, or having to take certain medications, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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