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Prevalance of Incontinence

Unless asked specifically about it, individuals often are reluctant to disclose bowel or fecal incontinence – even when talking to their own physician. This reluctance can make it difficult to obtain accurate estimates of the true prevalence of bowel/fecal incontinence (ABL). The results, and criteria, from several studies vary in reported prevalence of bowel/fecal incontinence.

“I thought I was the only one.”

“You feel so alone. You don’t dare tell most people.”

What is Incontinence?

“Incontinence” is the word used to describe loss of control over when and where we go to the bathroom. It is also called accidental bowel leakage, or ABL. Bowel incontinence occurs when the accidental loss of control of gas, liquid stool, or solid stool is enough to cause discomfort or distress. Incontinence is a sign that something is wrong – some part of the bowel control system is not working as it should.

If you experience bowel incontinence here are two important things to know:

  1. You are not alone – many people have this condition
  2. You do not have to just “live with it.” You can find help, and ways to treat and manage the condition

Bowel incontinence affects people of all ages.

  • In women living in the community, bowel incontinence (ABL) occurs in 6% of those younger than 40 and increases to 15% in older women. Combined fecal and urinary incontinence is estimated to occur in about 10% of women.[1]
  • In men living in the community, bowel incontinence occurs in 6–10% and increases slightly with age. Combined fecal and urinary incontinence occur in 10% of men.[1]
  • Two nursing home studies have identified a 45.0%[3] to 47.0%[4] prevalence of bowel incontinence among residents. Studies suggest that incontinence contributes to the decision to institutionalize elderly patients.
  • Minor bowel incontinence, or ABL, (staining underclothes, or leaking or losing less than 2 tsp. of stool) affects 7.4% of adult males and 6.9% of adult females.[2]
  • Approximately 30% of people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have frequent loose stools and 20%[5] report bowel incontinence.
  • Obstetrical trauma, leading to sphincter muscle injury or pudendal nerve injury, is a common cause of bowel incontinence.[6]

Visit IFFGD’s Publications Library to learn more


National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference Draft Statement. Prevention of Fecal and Urinary Incontinence in Adults. December 12, 2007.
Drossman DA, Li Z, Andruzzi E, et al. U.S. Householder Survey of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: Prevalence, Sociodemography, and Health Impact. Dig Dis Sci 1993;38:1569-80.
Dey AN. Characteristics of elderly nursing home residents; data from the 1995 National Nursing Home Survey. Advance data from vital and health statistics; no. 289. Hyattsville, Maryland; National Center for Health Statistics 1997.
Nelson R, Furner S, Jesudason V. Fecal Incontinence in Wisconsin Nursing Homes. Diseases of the Colon and Rectum Vol. 41, No. 10 October 1998.
Drossman DA, Sandler RS, Broom CM, et al. Urgency and fecal soiling in people with bowel dysfunction. Dig Dis Sci 1986;31:1221-25
Whitehead WE, Wald A, Norton NJ. Consensus Conference Report: Treatment Options for Fecal Incontinence. Diseases of the Colon and Rectum Vol. 44, No. 1 January 2001.

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IFFGD is a nonprofit education and research organization. Our mission is to inform, assist, and support people affected by gastrointestinal disorders.

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