Medicines for Urinary Urgency and Incontinence

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Urinary urgency is a symptom where you get a sudden urgent desire to pass urine and you are not able to put off going to the toilet. If you leak urine before you go to the toilet this is called incontinence. Medicines for urinary urgency and incontinence are used to decrease the number of urine leakages, the number of trips to the toilet and the feeling of urgency. These medicines are usually prescribed if other treatments such as pelvic floor exercises have not worked.

Urinary urgency is a symptom where you get a sudden urgent desire to pass urine and you are not able to put off going to the toilet. If you leak urine before you go to the toilet this is called incontinence. There are two main types of urinary incontinence:

  • Stress incontinence - this is when urine leaks because there is a sudden extra pressure within the abdomen and on the bladder. This pressure (or stress) is caused by things like coughing, laughing, sneezing or exercising (such as running or jumping). Weakened pelvic floor muscles cannot support the bladder and urethra so well. The pressure is too much for the bladder outlet to withstand and so urine leaks out. Small amounts of urine may leak, but sometimes it can be quite a lot and can cause embarrassment. This is the most common type of urinary incontinence. Most cases of stress incontinence are due to weakened pelvic floor muscles. Pelvic floor muscles are often weakened by childbirth.
  • Urge incontinence - this is when urine leaks before you get to the toilet when you have urgency. Urinary urgency and urge incontinence are sometimes called an unstable or overactive bladder, or detrusor instability. (The detrusor muscle is the medical name for the bladder muscle.) If you have urinary urgency or urge incontinence, you also tend to pass urine more often than normal (this is called frequency). Sometimes this is several times during the night as well as many times during the day. Some women also find that they leak urine during sex, especially during orgasm.The cause of urinary urgency and urge incontinence is not fully understood. The bladder muscle seems to become overactive and contract (squeeze) when you don't want it to. This is the second most common cause of urinary incontinence.

The rest of this leaflet discusses the use of medicines to treat urinary urgency, stress incontinence and urge incontinence. There is more detailed information on these conditions in the separate leaflets called Stress incontinence and Urge incontinence.

Medicines for urinary urgency and incontinence are used to decrease, the number of urine leakages, the number of trips to the toilet and the feeling of urgency. For people with stress incontinence a medicine called duloxetine may be prescribed. This medicine is normally used to treat depression. However, it was found to help with stress incontinence separate to its effect on depression. It is thought to work by interfering with certain chemicals that are used in transmitting nerve impulses to muscles. This helps the muscles around the urethra to contract more strongly.

Medicines called antimuscarinics (also called anticholinergics) are used to help treat urge incontinence. There are several different types and many different brand names. They include older medicines such as, oxybutynin, tolterodine and flavoxate as well as newer medicines such as darifenacin, fesoterodine, propiverine, solifenacin, and trospium. These medicines work by blocking certain nerve impulses to the bladder which relax the bladder muscle, so increasing the bladder capacity. Other medicines which are used less often are oestrogen gels/creams applied to the vagina, or a medicine called desmopressin.

In the past other medicines - for example, propantheline, and tricyclic antidepressants - were used to treat urge incontinence; however, they are not used any longer because of their side-effects.

Duloxetine is available as oral capsules. Antimuscarinics are available as capsules, tablets or skin patches. Some antimuscarinic tablets are available as slow-release tablets or capsules. This just means that the medicine is released into the body over a longer period of time and you don't have to take them as often in the day.

For people with stress incontinence, duloxetine may be advised if pelvic floor exercises alone are not helping to treat your stress incontinence. It is usually advised in women who do not want to undergo surgery, or in women who have health problems that may mean that surgery is unsuitable.

For people with urge incontinence, lifestyle measures (for example, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol) and bladder retraining are normally tried first. If there is not enough improvement with bladder training alone, medicines may then be considered.

As discussed above, duloxetine is prescribed for stress incontinence.

For people with urge incontinence, oxybutinin (an antimuscarinic) is normally prescribed first. If you have too many side-effects with this medicine, your doctor may choose a different antimuscarinic such as darifenacin, fesoterodine, propiverine, solifenacin, tolterodine, or trospium. Your doctor may also choose a slow-release preparation of oxybutinin or an oxybutinin skin patch to help lessen side-effects.

Propiverine is sometimes chosen if you have urinary urgency but you do not have urinary incontinence.

Other medicines that are used less often are oestrogen applied to the vagina, and desmopressin. These medicines are usually prescribed on the advice of a specialist doctor. Oestrogen applied to the vagina may be chosen for women who have gone through the menopause and desmopressin is considered if you are passing urine frequently at night and you are younger than 65 years of age.

For duloxetine, one study showed that in about 6 in 10 women who took duloxetine, the number of urine leakages halved compared to the time before they took the medication. Therefore, on its own, duloxetine is not likely to cure the incontinence but may help to make it less of a problem. However, duloxetine in addition to pelvic floor exercises may give a better chance of curing the incontinence than either treatment alone.

Antimuscarinic medicines are all thought to be as effective as each other. They may improve symptoms in some cases, but not in all. The level of improvement varies from person to person. You may have fewer toilet trips, fewer urine leaks, and less urgency. However, it is uncommon for symptoms to go completely with medication alone.

Duloxetine is usually given for about a month; after this, you are assessed to see if your symptoms have improved. If your symptoms have improved, duloxetine may be continued, and you are assessed every few months to see if it is still working. Your doctor may decide to stop treatment if your symptoms do not improve. If your doctor thinks that you should stop taking duloxetine you should do this slowly - for example, over 1-2 weeks. You should never stop taking this medicine suddenly because you can get withdrawal symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and headaches.

For antimuscarinics, a common plan is to try a course of medication for a month or so. If it is helpful, you may be advised to continue for up to six months or so and then stop the medication to see how symptoms are without the medication. Symptoms may return after you finish a course of medication. If you combine a course of medication with bladder training, the long-term outlook is better and symptoms may be less likely to return when you stop the medication. The need for continuing antimuscarinic medicine therapy should be reviewed every 4-6 weeks until symptoms stabilise, and then every 6-12 months.


The most commonly reported side-effects are nausea, dry mouth, fatigue, and constipation. These usually happen in the first week of treatment but most people find they go away after a few weeks. If these symptoms persist, your doctor may decrease your dose or consider stopping treatment. Some people who take duloxetine have small increases in blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure or any other heart problems, your doctor will measure your blood pressure regularly. Your doctor may consider stopping treatment if there are concerns about your blood pressure.


Side-effects are quite common with these medicines, but are often minor and tolerable. The most common side-effect is a dry mouth, and simply having frequent sips of water may counter this. Other common side-effects include dry eyes, constipation and blurred vision. However, the medicines have differences, and you may find that if one medicine causes troublesome side-effects, a switch to a different one may suit you better.

For a full list of side-effects see the information leaflet that came with your medicine.

In general, most people are able to take these medicines; however, there are some people who are unable to take these medicines.

Duloxetine should not be taken by people who have severe kidney or liver problems, uncontrolled high blood pressure, or are taking certain medicines - for example, antidepressants called monoamine-oxidase inhibitors. Antimuscarinics should not be taken by people with:

  • Myasthenia gravis (a condition where muscles become easily tired and weak).
  • Severe bladder problems or urinary retention (where the body retains urine).
  • Severe ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the gut).
  • Blockage of the gut.
  • Uncontrolled angle-closure glaucoma (a condition of the eye).

For a full list of people who cannot take these medicines, see the leaflet that came with your medicines.

No - you cannot buy medicines for urinary urgency and incontinence. They are only available from your pharmacist, with a doctor's prescription.

If you think you have had a side-effect to one of your medicines you can report this on the Yellow Card Scheme. You can do this online at the following web address:

The Yellow Card Scheme is used to make pharmacists, doctors and nurses aware of any new side-effects that medicines may have caused. If you wish to report a side-effect, you will need to provide basic information about:

  • The side-effect.
  • The name of the medicine which you think caused it.
  • Information about the person who had the side-effect.
  • Your contact details as the reporter of the side-effect.

It is helpful if you have your medication - and/or the leaflet that came with it - with you while you fill out the report.

Bladder and Bowel Foundation

SATRA Innovation Park, Rockingham Road, Kettering, Northants, NN16 9JH Tel (Nurse helpline): 0845 345 0165 (General enquiries): 01536 533255

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG)

A link to patient information on the surgical treatment of stress incontinence. The RCOG website has a section dedicated to informing the public about women's health and issues relating to it.

Association of of Chartered Physiotherapists in Women's Health

If you are thinking of seeing a physiotherapist privately for incontinence then members of this Association may be of particular help. Their website enables you to find a member of the Association nearest to where you live and gives some general information about issues such as incontinence and pelvic floor exercises. Note: physiotherapy for pelvic floor muscles is available on the NHS in most areas.

Original Author:
Dr Tim Kenny
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Peer Reviewer:
Dr Tim Kenny
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