Understanding the Difference Between OAB and Incontinence

September 07,2022 |
Man and woman jogging in a forest.

There are several different conditions that can affect the urinary system. While some of them may present the same symptoms, underlying causes and subsequent treatment options will likely vary. This makes differentiation between the conditions an essential part of the diagnostic process. For some urologic issues, this is easy; for others, the process can be a bit more confusing. Overactive bladder (OAB) and urinary incontinence are two issues that are often mistaken for each other. However, while they both involve issues with overall bladder function, these two conditions are not the same. To help with further clarification, here’s more information on understanding the difference between OAB and incontinence.


What is Urinary Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence is the medical term for losing control of your bladder. It’s not technically a condition, but rather a symptom of an underlying issue. There are several different types of urinary incontinence, with severity and intensity ranging from minor leakage throughout the day to full loss of bladder control. Urinary incontinence can also either be classified as chronic or temporary, depending on the underlying cause.

Temporary incontinence occurs when an individual suffers from short bouts of urinary incontinence. This is often in relation to diet, liquid intake, or other “triggers.” Individuals may also experience temporary urinary incontinence if they’re taking certain medications, have an infection, or are constipated.

Chronic urinary incontinence is caused by an underlying condition and tends to last for longer periods of time. This could be caused by pelvic trauma or surgery, cancers, neurologic conditions, pregnancy, or other conditions.

Causes of Urinary Incontinence

Women tend to be disproportionately affected by urinary incontinence throughout their lifetime. This is primarily due to the fact that pregnancy, childbirth, and hormones can weaken the muscles supporting the bladder and the pelvic floor.

Incontinence may occur due to physical activity or added stress on the bladder (exercising, coughing, sneezing, etc.) or when individuals are unable to fully empty their bladder (urinary retention). Other types of urinary incontinence occur when you get the sudden, intense urge to use the bathroom throughout the day (urge incontinence) or if you have a mental or physical condition that provides a barrier to reaching the toilet in time.

Alternatively, urinary incontinence may simply occur when you are drinking too many fluids throughout the day or have a common urinary tract infection. Since it’s merely a symptom of the underlying cause, getting the proper diagnosis is essential to treatment.

While overactive bladder (OAB) is considered a medical condition, it’s not technically a “disease.” OAB is a term that’s used to describe a range of urinary symptoms that can occur in men, women, or even young children. The primary characterization of an individual with overactive bladder is the presence of urinary incontinence. Therefore, urinary incontinence can be included in the symptoms of OAB, but not everyone with urinary incontinence has OAB.

Different Causes of OAB

Overactive bladder can be caused by a number of things. Unfortunately, in many situations, the direct cause is unknown. One of the most common reasons individuals experience OAB is due to unhealthy lifestyle habits or behaviors, especially in regard to smoking, drinking in excess, or consuming too many bladder irritants. Even just increasing the number of fluids you drink on a daily basis can trigger OAB symptoms.

However, there are also several medical causes that may lead to the development of overactive bladder. The most common of these include the following:


While some individuals who experience OAB know that they have one or more of these underlying medical conditions, others don’t. Even if you think you can pinpoint the cause of your symptoms, it’s always better to get checked out by a doctor just in case. The more information you have on what could be causing your condition, the better your treatment plan will be. It’s also important to understand that just because you have one or more of the conditions above does not mean that you’re guaranteed to get overactive bladder.


What’s the Difference Between Urinary Incontinence and OAB?

When describing both, urinary incontinence and overactive bladder seem to have more similarities than differences. The primary difference is that overactive bladder is referring to the actual spasms that occur within your bladder. These are what trigger other symptoms, like incontinence. Overactive bladder is also more than just incontinence alone. It includes an increase in urgency, frequency, and ongoing issues with nocturia. If you have OAB, the muscles in your bladder begin to work involuntarily or without your control, which in turn, leads to the symptoms presented. However, OAB does not necessarily describe why your bladder is spasming.


How to Treat Different OAB and Incontinence

At the onset of any type of urologic condition, it’s important to see your urologist to get a better idea of what’s going on and how to treat it. The diagnostics for urinary incontinence and overactive bladder are almost identical, as they’re performed to eliminate other, more serious conditions. If nothing else can be found, your doctor will diagnose you with either OAB or incontinence, depending on the symptoms that are present.

Treatment options for overactive bladder and urinary incontinence are also similar. Some of the most important ways to manage your symptoms include the following:

Quit Smoking

The chemicals found in cigarettes are terrible for your body, especially your urologic system. Smoking reduces vascular health, which can cause weakened bladder muscles and oxygen deprivation. By quitting smoking, you can reduce symptoms associated with both urinary incontinence and overactive bladder, especially if you’re between the ages of 20 and 49.

Eat a Balanced Diet

What you eat impacts bladder health. During digestion, your kidneys filter out waste products and the result is urine. This means that your diet has a direct impact on the overall health of your bladder and the surrounding urinary system. Some people may experience sensitivity or irritation with certain foods, while others are able to enjoy a more diverse range of options. However, it’s a good idea for everyone to avoid any foods with high acid content, spicy foods, dairy, gluten, or other foods that you notice have a negative impact on your symptoms.

Drink Plenty of Water During the Day

While it might seem counterintuitive, it’s important that you stay hydrated throughout the day. Reducing water intake can increase the concentration of your urine, which can worsen symptoms of overactive bladder and incontinence. Dehydration is dangerous in general, so try to do what you can to stay hydrated while managing your symptoms.

Limit Liquids at Night

With that being said, try to slowly taper off your water intake as the day goes on. If you experience problems with incontinence at night or nocturia, it’s important to do what you can to help reduce the risk of bladder activity during the evening. You can still take small sips of water to keep yourself hydrated at night, but avoid alcohol consumption or large quantities of water before bed.

Strengthen Your Pelvic Floor

Another option is engaging in exercises that will strengthen your pelvic floor. There are several different exercises you can incorporate in your training to help, but the most popular option is kegels. If you have any questions on how to perform these, talk to your doctor or consider scheduling an appointment with a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor muscles.


While these are great ways to take proactive care of your body and help minimize symptoms of urinary incontinence and/or overactive bladder, it’s still important to see your urologist. Working with your doctor is the best way to properly manage your symptoms and improve your overall quality of life. It will also ensure that you address any underlying problems and reduce the risk of further complications such as, urinary tract infections, kidney infections, cancer, nerve disorders, frequent skin problems, a lower quality of life, and a negative effect on mental health. If you’re suffering from urinary incontinence, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor today. To help you manage any temporary or chronic incontinence issues, Byram Healthcare is here. We carry a wide selection of high-quality incontinence products that can help you take back control of your life. To learn more, or to speak with a professional regarding incontinence questions and ongoing management, contact Byram Healthcare today.

Byram Healthcare is a member of the National Association for Continence’s Trusted Partners Program, whose mission is to provide quality continence care through education, collaboration and advocacy. We continue to build partnerships in the clinical community to ensure we focus on what’s best for the patient.