Is Your Bladder Trying to Tell You Something?

8 cues that you might have a urinary system problem
anxious rushing woman
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We use the bathroom every day without thinking much about it -- but sometimes it's worth paying closer attention. The bladder is an organ that can reveal plenty about your inner health. What's yours saying to you?

Listen to the following common messages from the bladder. All warrant checking in with your doctor, who might also refer you to a urologist (specialist in the urinary tract). These symptoms can be critical to diagnosing many treatable urinary problems and urinary incontinence.

Going to the bathroom too often?

How often is too often, considering that the average adult voids about a quart and a half of urine a day? Most doctors consider more than eight trips to the bathroom in a day as a sign of an overactive bladder, also called urge incontinence.

Even if you can't produce much, it's the frequency of desire that's a red flag. For some people, frequent bathroom stops can become an obsessive habit (like frequent hand washing or hair brushing), but with urge incontinence, you feel you physically must go.

More bladder symptoms to watch for

Gotta go . . . NOW?

When the urge to find a bathroom immediately is overwhelming -- whether or not anything actually comes out once you do -- doctors usually also suspect overactive bladder. Another common sign: Worrying about finding a restroom "in time," or (sometimes seen in older adults or those with dementia), beginning to unzip en route.

Feeling the burn?

A burning sensation while urinating is one of the top symptoms of urinary tract infection (UTI) in both women and men. What's more, this symptom is probably not just in your imagination: UTIs are the second most common kind of infection in the body, though they're more common in women.

Sometimes, but not always, the burning is accompanied by pain. For women, there may also be a sense of fullness or pressure above the pubic bone; men sometimes notice a sense of fullness in the rectum. Fever, fatigue, and abdominal pain are other signs to watch for.

More bladder symptoms to watch for

Strange stream?

After age 40, some men notice that their urinary stream becomes weak, dribbles, or is easily interrupted. "Hesitant" is the adjective doctors sometimes use. When this symptom is accompanied by a more frequent need to urinate (or to try to urinate), especially at night, or a need to "go" suddenly, prostate problems are often to blame.

More than half of men in their 60s begin to experience these lower-urinary-tract symptoms.

Being awakened by the urge to pee?

Maybe you just drank too much last night, if you're up at 2 a.m. stumbling to the toilet. But if your bladder awakens you twice or more per night or this happens routinely (symptoms known as nocturia), there's likely another underlying problem: overactive bladder.

This strong and sudden need to urinate -- so strong it can awaken you from sleep -- may be followed by a leakage of urine before you make it to the bathroom.

More bladder symptoms to watch for

Leaking when you laugh? (Or lift? Or cough?)

Bladders reserve some special messages for women: If you lose a few drops (or more) of urine when you exert yourself physically, even doing something as minor as laughing hard or sneezing, you've got stress incontinence.

Stress incontinence isn't an inevitable consequence of childbirth or aging, though these experiences can raise your risk. Stress incontinence is caused by a weakening of the muscles and nerves that help hold or release urine. It can worsen the week before your period, and it sometimes gets worse after menopause due to hormonal changes.

Leaking during sex?

More than half of all sexually active women with bladder control problems also experience sexual difficulties. It's common for women with bladder control problems to urinate upon penetration, or to leak or even empty their bladder upon reaching orgasm. Not surprisingly, some women begin to avoid intimacy altogether out of embarrassment.

Urge incontinence can cause the bladder to empty at all sorts of inopportune times. For some people, the mere sound of running water starts the process. Malfunctioning nerve signals are often a root cause.

More bladder symptoms to watch for

Seeing red?

Urine -- the mix of water and waste that the blood and kidneys have filtered -- isn't one single hue. Normal urine can range in color from palest amber to muddy merlot. The color of one's output depends on a range of factors, including how much liquid you drink, the natural or color or artificial dyes in the food you eat, and medications you take.

Seeing blood in the urine, which may appear as a pink or red spot or eddy, always warrants mentioning immediately to a doctor. The cause is often something as benign as a urinary tract infection or leftover menses, but it can also flag a more serious health issue.

Urine that suddenly turns very dark should also be mentioned to a doctor. Dark brown may signal a liver problem, for example, and dark orange indicates dehydration.

Another red flag: urine with a strong odor. (It's usually odorless.)

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio