The normal bladder capacity is about 16 ounces (2 cups) of liquid and even less for a child. The bladder can stretch to hold more than this, but doing so too often can be dangerous.
Regularly putting off going to the bathroom is not recommended.
In this article, we look at the possible effects of holding in pee too long or too frequently.
Holding in pee may lead to some unwanted effects.
In a healthy adult, occasionally holding in pee will not cause problems, but there may be some unwanted effects if it becomes a habit.
When the bladder fills about halfway with liquid, it sends a signal to the brain that it is time to pee. The brain creates the urge to urinate while telling the bladder to hold on.
Sometimes it is necessary to hold in urine. It may be difficult to access a restroom, or a person may be practicing exercises to retrain their bladder.
There are no hard rules for how and when it is safe to hold in pee. Some people may be more prone to side effects than others.
Possible side effects
Below, we look at five potential side effects of holding in pee:
People who regularly ignore the urge to pee may feel pain in the bladder or kidneys. When a person finally does reach the bathroom, urinating may also hurt.
The muscles may also stay partially clenched after the urine is released, which can lead to pelvic cramps.
2. Urinary tract infection
In some cases, holding in pee for too long can cause bacteria to multiply. This may lead to a urinary tract infection (UTI).
No research has shown that holding in pee causes UTIs, but many doctors recommend avoiding it, especially if a person has a history of frequent UTIs.
People who do not drink enough liquids may be more likely to develop a UTI because the bladder is not telling the body to pee often enough. This can cause bacteria to spread through the urinary tract, leading to infection.
Symptoms of a UTI include:
- a burning or stinging feeling during urination
- pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen
- a constant urge to empty the bladder
- strong- or foul-smelling urine
- cloudy, off-colored urine
- consistently dark urine
- bloody urine
3. Bladder stretching
In the long term, regularly holding in pee can cause the bladder to stretch. This may make it difficult or impossible for the bladder to contract and release pee normally.
If a person has a stretched bladder, extra measures, such as a catheter, may be necessary.
4. Damage to pelvic floor muscles
Frequently retaining urine may harm the pelvic floor muscles.
One of these muscles is the urethral sphincter, which keeps the urethra closed, to prevent urine from leaking out. Damaging this muscle could lead to urinary incontinence.
Doing pelvic floor exercises such as Kegels may help to strengthen these muscles and prevent leakage or repair muscle loss.
5. Kidney stones
Holding in pee may cause kidney stones to form in people with a history of the condition, or people who have a high mineral content in their urine. Pee often contains minerals such as uric acid and calcium oxalate.
Will the bladder burst?
A common myth is that the bladder will burst if a person holds in their pee too long. Although this is extremely rare, it is possible.
It is much more likely that the bladder will simply override the muscles holding the urine in, causing the person to have an accident.
Effects from other conditions
Some preexisting medical conditions can lead to urine retention. This is usually involuntary, and it tends to go unnoticed, but it can cause similar complications.
An enlarged prostate, weakened bladder muscles, or nerve damage in the urinary system may block the flow of urine or cause the body to retain it.
People with kidney disorders may also want to avoid holding in pee, to prevent possible complications.
Training the body to pee less often
A distraction, such as watching TV, may be recommended to help retrain the bladder.
In some cases, doctors may recommend retraining the bladder to pee less frequently. This involves resisting the urge to pee.
The goal is to increase the amount of fluid the bladder can hold before it triggers the urge to pee. If successful, this will extend the amount of time between trips to the bathroom.
A doctor will often develop a personalized retraining schedule. The following tips may help a person ease into the retraining process:
- staying warm, because being cold may trigger the urge to pee
- listening to music or watching television, for distraction
- actively engaging the brain with a game, puzzle, or problem to solve
- reading a book or newspaper article
- staying seated or walking around, whichever resolves the urge
- making a telephone call or writing an email
The key is to engage the brain and direct attention away from the urge to urinate.
Tips for reaching the bathroom in time
Though it is best to pee whenever the bladder is full, a person may not have immediate access to a bathroom.
The following tips can help a person make it to a toilet in time:
- Cross the legs while standing: This may compress the urethra and avoid an emergency.
- Pass gas: A buildup of gas may be putting added pressure on the bladder.
- Pee right after waking up: People in a rush to leave the house may skip a trip to the bathroom, but it is important to start the day's cycle of urination right.
- Plan for regular bathroom breaks: A person may want to try scheduling a bathroom break every 2 to 3 hours. Set an alarm and head to the bathroom, whether or not the bladder is sending a signal. This can help to relieve pressure and avoid emergencies.
- Do not wait until it is an emergency: Regardless of deadlines or busy days, make a habit of heading to the bathroom the moment the urge to urinate hits.
Occasionally holding pee in will likely cause no harm. However, regularly doing so may increase the risk of infection or other complications.
It may help to have healthy and regular bathroom habits. Anyone who feels that they are urinating too much or too often should speak to a doctor.