An Embarrassing Situation
Last updated: April 2023
When you have COPD and become short of breath, you may feel the urgency to go to the bathroom or experience incontinence. It affects many of us with COPD and due to the shame and embarrassment that many sufferers feel, it is under-discussed - leading many COPD sufferers to think that they are the only ones with the problem. COPDers with incontinence have a poorer mental state than those without incontinence. The fear of embarrassment from losing control prevents COPDer from enjoying many aspects of life and feel alienated from others. Incontinence is an involuntary operation of the body and shouldn’t be seen as unacceptable or embarrassing behavior.
My experience with loss of bladder control
I know first hand what it feels like the first time your shortness of breath causes you to lose control of your bladder in public. In my early years with COPD I was like many of you who are new to COPD are: unaware incontinence is a consequence of having severe COPD. I will never forget how embarrassed and ashamed I felt at the checkout counter in Walmart, and the look on the faces of the people around me. I was so SOB, I was already the object of everyone's stares, and losing control of my bladder and standing in a puddle of my own urine, my pants soaked made me want to die.
It can be mortifying
I learned two things that day: 1, when shopping in Walmart, always use a ride-around cart, and 2, when I go out to always wear adult underwear. I was also present when my deceased husband (also a severe COPD sufferer), lost control of both his bladder and bowels in front of his sister's house after a visit. My husband was mortified, he had a hard enough time dealing with SOB and wearing oxygen in public after that incident of incontinence (other than to go to the doctor), my husband never left the house again. If you have advanced COPD, when you become SOB, avoiding incontinence is almost impossible. It is also one of the reasons many severe COPD sufferers become housebound. Being unable to control your bodily functions at home is embarrassing enough. To lose full control of your bladder and/or bowels in public is mortifying.
Incontinence is the medical term for the inability to hold your urine or bowel movements long enough to get to a restroom. When you experience extreme shortness of breath, your body goes into "survival mode". When your oxygen level is dangerously low, the body starts shutting down and conserving oxygen for the most vital organs. In survival mode, oxygen is diverted away from organs like the bladder and bowel (as they are not necessary for survival), to the parts of our bodies that keep us alive: heart, brain, and lungs. This is an automatic physical response, this is the reason why you will feel a sudden need to urinate or defecate. Just as shortness of breath is a way of life with COPD, eventually so is incontinence. If you have mild COPD you may experience light/infrequent incontinence, from everyday thing not just being short of breath. Things like laughing, sneezing, coughing, climbing stairs, and other physical activity, but, you may be able to prevent it from happening. If you are or have had a problem with incontinence, talk to your doctors about it.
What is incontinence?
Feeling embarrassed is understandable when losing control of our bladders or bowels, as well as unpleasant, uncomfortable, and very inconvenient, however, take heart, there are solutions for dealing with incontinence.
Wherever you go out shopping, running errands, to a restaurant, your doctor, or visiting, keep a lookout for restrooms in the general vicinity. If you know you will be leaving the house, don’t drink anything and only eat a very light snack. If your mouth gets dry take small sips of water or suck on a piece of hard candy. Keeping little to no food or liquids in your body will help prevent an accident when becoming SOB. Make sure to visit your bathroom and try to empty your bladder and bowels before leaving the house. When you're out shopping or if you are going to eat out, try to do so just before you're ready to go home, instead of when you first go out. I also suggest you use some kind of protective pad for underwear, if you don't wish to do so then you should also bring along a change of clothes just in case.
How I manage incontinence and bladder control
What many refer to sarcastically as adult diapers became, and to this day are, one of my best friends. I wear adult underwear any time I step foot out my front door, and if I'm having a bad day in my house too. I don't want any mishap on my furniture, or when my family or friend are visiting. When you have end-stage COPD incontinence becomes a regular occurrence. Whenever I go out I not only wear protective underwear, I also carry an extra pair and some feminine wipes with me. I keep them in a small zippered bag, if I lose control and pee my pants, as soon as I can I go to a restroom, clean up, and I'm good to go again. The best part is no one knows what has occurred but me, no embarrassment, no weird looks. I know a lot of people refuse to wear adult underwear, they feel there is a stigma attached. In their minds wearing adult underwear is undignified, unmanly or un-womanly. Don't become one of them, there are all types of products for dealing with incontinence.
Since I do my own shopping and travel often, I find adult disposable underwear the best alternative for me. However if you do not feel comfortable wearing the disposable underwear there are disposable pads, reusable underwear with shields built into undergarments to prevent you outerwear from getting wet or soil. These products are available for both men and women and when worn are virtually undetectable. Check the Internet to find the right one for you. To those with COPD: you may not be able to control incontinence, but, please don't let fear of incontinence control you. Prevent the unpleasantness of incontinence at home or out in the world. Just put your adult underwear on, and you're good to go. Breathe deep and easy.
Where do you stand with your COPD?