Staying active with bladder problems

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

Many of us will have an infected or leaky bladder at some stage in life. Around 1 in 2 women and 1 in 20 men will get a urinary tract infection, and 1 in 3 women who've had a baby experience bladder-control problems.

Bladder problems can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but there are ways you can manage them and continue the activities you enjoy.

Why are bladder problems common in women?

Being a woman means you’re more prone to bladder problems than men — and not just when you’re older.

The female body   

Women can get more urinary tract infections than men because they have a shorter urethra (the tube you pass urine through). This makes it easier for bacteria to get into the bladder. Being sexually active makes women more susceptible to infection, as can the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and at certain times of your period.

Urinary incontinence (unintentional leakage of urine) can also occur in women who have a urinary tract infection or who are overweight.

Pregnancy and childbirth   

Pregnancy can cause urinary incontinence by putting additional pressure on your bladder.

Physical changes to your body during childbirth can also lead to ongoing problems with bladder control. Delivering a baby can weaken pelvic floor muscles (which help keep your urethra closed when strong) and may damage nerves and tissues involved in bladder control.

Pelvic floor muscles can also get damaged when you have a hysterectomy or other surgery involving your womb.

Menopause  

Women produce less oestrogen once they pass menopause. This can lead to a weaker bladder and urethra, and consequently more incontinence and urinary tract infections. The older you are, the more likely you’ll have problems with your bladder, as it tends to get more overactive and less able to hold onto urine.

Bladder problems in men

Men tend to get more bladder problems at an older age, but they can occur as early as their 50s. No matter you're your age, talk to your doctor if you're having trouble urinating or experiencing other bladder problems.

As men get older their prostate gland grows. The more it enlarges the more pressure it places on their urinary system.

And as is the case for women, medical conditions like diabetes and kidney disease can make men more susceptible to bladder problems. Some medicines can cause incontinence too, including some types of medicines used to treat high blood pressure and depression.

How can I manage bladder problems?

Tips to help you manage a urinary tract infection or urinary incontinence.

Keep drinking fluids

  • If you have an infected bladder, drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, helps flush out bacteria.
  • Stay hydrated when exercising with a urinary tract infection, especially if it's an intensive workout or done in a hot or humid environment.
  • Add a urinary alkalinising agent (in brands such as Ural or Citralite) or one teaspoon of baking soda or bicarbonate of soda to your water to help reduce the burning feeling when passing urine.
  • If you often get urinary tract infections, you may be able to reduce their frequency by drinking cranberry juice every day.

Watch your diet

  • Increasing fibre and fluids in your diet can prevent urinary incontinence by preventing constipation.
  • Avoid or modify your intake of foods and drinks that can make passing urine more uncomfortable, that irritate your bladder, or cause you sudden urges to urinate. These include alcohol, caffeine, and foods and drinks that are very spicy, acidic or sugary: examples are chocolate, tea, coffee, cola, energy drinks, citrus fruits and tomatoes.

Increase your exercise

  • Exercise may ward off urinary incontinence by keeping your weight under control.
  • Pelvic floor exercises can help strengthen your urethra and pelvic floor muscles.
  • Bladder training, where you gradually increase the interval between trips to the toilet, can improve bladder control.

Be prepared

  • Placing a heating pad around your abdomen can help ease the pressure and discomfort of a bladder infection.
  • You may feel more comfortable wearing cotton rather than nylon underwear and avoiding tight clothing.
  • Take spare incontinence pads when you're out and about.
  • Try to avoid deodorants and perfumed products around your genital area, as these may cause irritation.

Should I see a health professional?

While you can take control of bladder problems yourself, get medical advice if your symptoms persist, get worse or are stopping you from leading a normal life.

Talk to a doctor if you often get incontinence

Incontinence can be an uncomfortable subject. But your doctor can help by advising treatment options and checking that your incontinence is not related to anything serious. They can also refer you to another health professional that specialises in pelvic floor exercises or bladder training if needed.

To help your doctor, you can record important information about your incontinence in a bladder diary, such as how much fluid you drink and the number of times you feel sudden urges to urinate.

Seek advice urgently for serious infections

Bladder infections can turn nasty if left untreated and can spread into your kidneys, which may cause kidney damage. See a doctor immediately if you have signs of a kidney infection, including a high fever, chills, vomiting, or pain in your lower abdomen or back.

You’ll also need to see your doctor for treatment if you’re pregnant. Urinary tract infections during pregnancy can affect your blood pressure or unborn baby.

Where can I get help?

Find details of local physiotherapists specialising in incontinence from the Australian Physiotherapy Association or through the National Continence Helpline.

Continence Foundation of Australia provides free information resources on urinary incontinence including a bladder diary.

Kidney Health Australia has more information about the urinary system and urinary tract infections.