Overactive bladder, urinary incontinence, and UTIs

3 min read
How are urinary incontinence, overactive bladder, and UTIs different?
Can Kegel exercises help with UTIs? Does urinary incontinence lead to UTIs? Learn more about how these issues are connected but distinct.  


Although OAB, urinary incontinence and urinary tract infections (UTIs) can share some symptoms, the issues themselves are fairly distinct.

What is urinary incontinence?

Urinary incontinence, also known as involuntary urination, is any leakage of urine. Many women also experience incontinence after giving birth, and many men often experience it for several months following prostate surgery.

Often times, urinary incontinence indicates a different underlying medical condition. For instance, it’s very common for incontinence to be a symptom of both overactive bladder and urinary tract infections.

What is overactive bladder?

Overactive bladder (often called OAB) condition in which the bladder can no longer hold urine normally. If you have an overactive bladder, you might often feel a sudden urge to urinate or experience accidents or leakage — also known as urinary incontinence.

OAB happens when the muscles that control bladder function start to act involuntarily. You may experience OAB if you drink alcohol and caffeine in large quantities. Serious health conditions can also lead to OAB, such as a stroke or nervous system problems, like multiple sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson’s disease. Diabetes and kidney disease can also lead to OAB. In men, an enlarged prostate often results in OAB.

What is a UTI?

A urinary tract infection (also called a UTI for short) is initially caused by the bladder becoming irritated or inflamed. This bladder inflammation occurs when the healthy bugs in the bladder can’t control the overgrowth of the unhealthy bugs normally in the bladder. This imbalance of unhealthy to healthy bugs in the bladder leads to a UTI. If the infection becomes severe enough, the infection can travel from the bladder to the kidneys and cause a kidney infection.  

A UTI will often come with these symptoms:

  • A strong urine odor
  • A feeling that you have to urinate often but only produce a small amount of urine
  • The urgency to urinate and not being able to effectively hold the bladder - also known as urinary incontinence
  • Change in urine color. For example, the urine looks cloudy or has a tinge of blood.
  • Pain with urination
  • Feeling under the weather with possibly having a fever, chills, or body aches
  • Having pain in the lower back, the center of the pelvis and the area around the pubic bone
  • In older adults, a UTI may not have any of the symptoms listed above but instead be accompanied by a general sense of delirium, disorientation, irritability, and other behavioral changes.

If urinary incontinence correlated with recurrent UTIs, can Kegel exercises help prevent UTIs?

Studies do show that women who experience UTIs more frequently will experience incontinence more frequently, both while during the periods that they have an active UTI and the periods that they do not. That said, the research does not clearly indicate that the urinary incontinence is causing the UTI recurrence, versus the other way around.

While we can’t say for sure that Kegel exercises will reduce your UTI incidence, these exercises will certainly come with other benefits. Kegel exercises strengthen the muscles surrounding your bladder over time, which can dramatically decrease incontinence symptoms. According to Everyday Health, a review of studies from New Zealand found that women who regularly practiced Kegels were up to 17 times more likely to be cured of incontinence symptoms than women who did not.

How do you get started with Kegel exercises?

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few key steps to getting started with Kegel exercises:

  • Identify your pelvic floor muscles. Experiment with stopping urination in midstream. If you succeed, you've got the right muscles.
  • Practice and perfect your technique. Tighten your pelvic floor muscles, hold the contraction for five seconds, and then relax for five seconds. Try it four or five times in a row. Eventually, aim to contract the muscles for 10 seconds at a time, relaxing them for 10 seconds between contractions.
  • Stay focused on isolating your pelvic floor muscles. Be careful to tighten only your pelvic floor muscles. Be careful not to flex the muscles in your abdomen, thighs or buttocks. Breathe freely throughout the exercises instead of holding your breath.
  • Repeat three times a day. Aim for at least three sets of 10 repetitions a day.

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