One of the most embarrassing of human experiences is to experience a bathroom accident. This involuntary passing of liquid or solid stool is formally known as fecal or bowel incontinence. Bathroom accidents like this can happen when passing gas, when experiencing an urgent bowel movement, and when constipation results in loose stool that leaks around the hard stool. Having this happen to you can be very upsetting, but you can find assurance that there are things you can do to address this problem head-on.
Tell Your Doctor
It is estimated that only half of people who experience fecal incontinence tell their doctors about it, most likely due to feelings of shame and the stigma attached to this perceived loss of control. Don’t make this mistake. It is essential that you tell your doctor about your soiling problem to ensure that the underlying cause of the incontinence is accurately pinpointed and treated. Health conditions that can lead to incontinence are:
- Neurological disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Spinal lesions
- Pelvic floor dysfunction (difficulty with coordination of pelvic muscles, which allow you to have a bowel movement)
- Trauma secondary to childbirth
A good rule is to hope for the best, but to be prepared for the worst. Here are some ideas:
Pack a small survival kit that contains personal cleaning products, adult sanitary products and a change of clothes.
Scout out the location of available public restrooms before leaving home. Here is a list of some helpful websites and apps:
Watch What You Eat
The foods that we eat and drink can affect both the frequency and consistency of our stools. Thus, to prevent fecal soiling, you will want to avoid anything that would increase the speed of your bowel movements, therefore causing diarrhea:
- Large meals
- Foods and drinks containing caffeine, including coffee, tea, chocolate and some soft drinks
- Fried or fatty foods
- Dairy products (if you suffer from lactose intolerance)
- Sorbitol and fructose
Take Care of your Anus
If you are experiencing fecal incontinence, you may experience significant irritation of the skin surrounding the anus. To help reduce the discomfort, wash your anus with soap or an alcohol-free flushable wipe. After cleaning, treat the area with talcum powder or ask your doctor about an appropriate ointment. Make sure to wear cotton undergarments to help the area stay dry. If necessary, use a sitz bath.
Work to Reduce Anticipatory Anxiety
Worrying about having an accident can contribute to your odds of actually experiencing one, as the body’s stress response can stimulate diarrhea. There are things that you can actively do to reduce this fear:
What Not to Do
There are things that you may be doing that may be inadvertently adding to the problem. Make sure to avoid:
Squeezing and straining: If your fear of soiling causes you to frequently squeeze the muscles around your rectum, you may increase your risk of experiencing muscle fatigue, weakness, pain and cramping, all of which can contribute to a dysfunction of the anal sphincter and, therefore, incontinence.
Starving yourself: It is a common misconception to think that if you don’t put food into your body, there will be nothing to come out. It doesn’t work that way. People with little or no food intake will continue to pass stool of some form, as the body continues to produce saliva, stomach acid, and bile, as well as passes byproducts of gut bacteria. A healthier alternative is to eat small but frequent meals on a consistent basis throughout your day to encourage healthy gut functioning.
Restricting your activities: It is quite understandable to be afraid to go out in public for fear of having a soiling accident. People who suffer from fecal incontinence often find it nearly impossible to contemplate engaging in the kind of activities that healthy people take for granted. However, this can lead to social isolation and depression. The following articles, although written for IBS, are filled with tips for managing symptoms and finding a way to live a fulfilling life:
- Having a Life with IBS
- Traveling with IBS
- IBS on the Job
- Going to School with IBS
- Dining Out with IBS
- Going to Parties with IBS
Landefeld, C. et.al. “National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference Statement: Prevention of Fecal and Urinary Incontinence in Adults" Annals of Internal Medicine 2008 148:449-458.
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) “Reporters Guide to Bowel Incontinence”.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) “Fecal Incontinence”.
Norton, W. “Talking to Your Doctor About Incontinence”. IFFGD Fact Sheet 316 2008.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.