While men never have a problem with groan-inducing long lines for public restrooms, women know all too well the struggles of holding in pee. Because waiting for an empty bathroom stall is just a fact of our existence, we often skip peeing, barely bothering to ask ourselves "Is holding in your pee bad?" But preventing your body from carrying out its natural functions — including holding in gas — can cause some serious health issues.
Why do we pee?
Urinating is a necessary bodily function that removes the waste and water your kidneys have filtered out of your system. A normal bladder can hold between one-and-a-half to two cups of urine at a time, according to the National Institutes of Health.
It's possible to train your bladder to hold more liquid by refraining from peeing for long stretches. Case in point: A 1991 study found that the bladders of nurses could hold almost double the amount of liquids as a result of urinating infrequently during their shifts.
While bladder training is useful for people who struggle with incontinence (as are incontinence pads to keep you safe and dry), it's still not a good idea to get into the habit of holding in your pee if you're otherwise healthy. Doing so will stretch your external sphincter muscles, which can lead to a whole host of other problems.
Effects of Holding in Pee
Think of your external sphincter muscles as the gatekeepers to your bladder: they control when you evacuate your bladder and how much liquid exits when you urinate. Clenching your external sphincter muscles will keep urine in, while relaxing them allows urine to escape down the toilet. Over time, sphincter muscles can become loose as a result of holding in pee too frequently, which stretches the muscles. But don't worry: Usually it takes years of this bad habit to actually have an effect on your sphincter muscles.
Loose sphincter muscles can lead to a leaky bladder, which can be the source of much embarrassment. Conversely, damaged sphincter muscles may have trouble relaxing, leaving the bladder unable to release its contents.
When urinary tract muscles are weakened, the bladder may lose its ability to completely empty itself. This in turn may result in a painful condition called urinary retention, which can be acute or chronic. Someone suffering from acute urinary rention cannot urinate even though they have a full bladder; this version is often sudden and lasts briefly, but it can be a life-threatening condition. Those who suffer from chronic urinary retention are able to urinate, but they can't full empty their bladders. Often, chronic urinary retention goes unnoticed until someone develops a UTI as a result of urine sitting and collecting bacteria, or they experience an episode of incontinence.
The worst-case scenario for holding in your pee is that it causes your kidneys to get backed up, resulting in kidney failure and even death. Fortunately, your bladder will most likely just empty itself before you even get to that point. Plus, you can work on strengthening your sphincter muscles and pelvic floor by doing your kegel exercises to combat an overactive bladder.
How long can you hold in your pee?
OK, so you're two innings into your son's baseball game and suddenly you have the urge to go. How long can you hold your pee before it's no longer safe? Well, the answer depends on a few different factors, according to Benjamin Brucker, MD, an assistant professor of urology at NYU Langone Medical Center. A variety of factors determine how long you can comfortably hold in your pee, but "most of the time, women can hold urine for three to six hours," Brucker explained.
Not much research has been done on the topic, Brucker added, so when in doubt, pee it out — but not every time you feel a pang. "You don't want to give in to every slight sensation to urinate, but you also don't want to hold it in to the point where it is painful." Peeing too frequently can also lead to urinary retention issues.
Everything considered, if you're stuck in the early innings of your child's Little League game or you're in a movie theater and need to go but the film's just gotten to a good part, hang in there. You should be OK to sit with a little discomfort. That said, don't wait too long. You can always watch the movie when it comes to Netflix, and your son won't even notice you've waddled off to the bathroom — we promise.