Bowel incontinence is an inability to control bowel movements, resulting in involuntary soiling. It's also sometimes known as faecal incontinence.
The experience of bowel incontinence can vary from person to person. Some people feel a sudden need to go to the toilet but are unable to reach a toilet in time. This is known as urge bowel incontinence.
Other people experience no sensation before soiling themselves, known as passive incontinence or passive soiling, or there might be slight soiling when passing wind.
Some people experience incontinence on a daily basis, whereas for others it only happens from time to time.
It's thought one in 10 people will be affected by it at some point in their life. It can affect people of any age, although it's more common in elderly people. It's also more common in women than men.
Why bowel incontinence happens
Bowel incontinence is a symptom of an underlying problem or medical condition.
Many cases are caused by diarrhoea, constipation, or weakening of the muscle that controls the opening of the anus.
It can also be caused by long-term conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and dementia.
Read more about the causes of bowel incontinence.
Seeking advice and treatment
Bowel incontinence can be upsetting and hard to cope with, but treatment is effective and a cure is often possible, so make sure you see your GP.
It's important to remember that:
- Bowel incontinence isn't something to be ashamed of – it's simply a medical problem that's no different from diabetes or asthma.
- It can be treated – there's a wide range of successful treatments.
- Bowel incontinence isn't a normal part of ageing.
- It won't usually go away on its own – most people need treatment for the condition.
If you don't want to see your GP, you can usually make an appointment at your local NHS continence service without a referral. These clinics are staffed by specialist nurses who can offer useful advice about incontinence.
Read more about diagnosing bowel incontinence.
How bowel incontinence is treated
In many cases, with the right treatment, a person can maintain normal bowel function throughout their life.
Treatment will often depend on the cause and how severe it is, but possible options include:
- lifestyle and dietary changes to relieve constipation or diarrhoea
- exercise programmes to strengthen the muscles that control the bowel
- medication to control diarrhoea and constipation
- surgery, of which there are a number of different options
Incontinence products, such as anal plugs and disposable pads, can be used until your symptoms are better controlled.
Even if it isn't possible to cure your bowel incontinence, symptoms should improve significantly.
Read more about treating bowel incontinence.