Carewell's Essential Checklist for Bowel Incontinence Care
Bowel incontinence affects about 1 in 3 adults, yet many people who suffer from the condition fail to seek treatment due to fear, stigma, or embarrassment. What you might not realize is that bowel problems are a common result of the natural aging process. As you get older, the anal sphincter—a ring of muscle that prevents stool from leaving the rectum and anus—weakens, increasing the risk of unexpected bowel movements.
While bowel incontinence presents challenges, it often responds to healthy lifestyle changes and activity modification. To assist caregivers and their loved ones, we’ve developed this essential guide to bowel incontinence care.
What causes bowel incontinence?
There are various factors that can affect someone’s ability to control their bowel movement, including:
A weak anal sphincter
The inability of the rectum to stretch
Frequent diarrhea or constipation
Underlying medical conditions (like inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease)
Physical or mental disabilities that hamper or prevent the sensation of needing “to go”
Bowel incontinence can also occur due to the misuse or overuse of stool softeners or laxatives. Many older individuals use these medications to stay “regular,” but they increase the liquid content of the stool, causing diarrhea, which can result in unexpected leaks.
How can I help a loved one with bowel incontinence care?
The first step to providing bowel incontinence care is making an appointment with your loved one’s primary care physician. To treat the condition effectively, it’s important to identify the underlying cause.
It’s common for people with bowel incontinence to avoid medical help, but it’s absolutely necessary. By identifying the source of the bowel movement issues and taking steps to correct them, your loved one can live a much happier and active life.
If it helps, you might even join them during the appointment to provide moral support. Doctors know how common bowel incontinence is and will work with your loved one to provide compassionate care.
Lifestyle changes for bowel incontinence care
In the majority of cases, bowel incontinence responds well to healthy lifestyle changes and doesn’t require prescription medication or more invasive intervention.
1. Consume a nutritious, high-fiber diet. One of the easiest ways to reduce the risk of bowel incontinence is to eat a high-fiber diet that consists of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. These foods add bulk and weight to stool, making them softer and easier to pass.
2. Drink plenty of water. Many people who experience bowel incontinence also experience constipation. Constipation often occurs due to dehydration. When you drink water throughout the day, some of it remains in your colon, making it easier to have a bowel movement.
If your loved one has kidney, liver, or heart disease and they’ve been asked to limit their fluid intake, talk with their primary care physician about what you can do to help them stay hydrated.
3. Exercise regularly. If your loved one is in relatively good health and mobile, encourage them to exercise for at least 30 minutes a few days each week. Exercise prevents constipation by cutting down on the time it takes for food to move through the large intestine.
4. Take a fiber supplement. Some individuals need extra fiber in addition to what they eat. Dietary supplements like Metamucil increase the bulk of the stool, encouraging passage through the colon.
5. Eliminating irritants. Sometimes, bowel incontinence occurs due to chronic diarrhea. While this can point to an underlying health problem, it’s also a common side-effect of certain stimulants and food additives. If you care for someone with bowel incontinence, encourage them to eliminate the following to see if it improves their symptoms:
Gas-producing foods like broccoli, brussels sprouts, or cabbage
Foods and drinks high in sugar (ice cream, cookies, and cake)
Processed or fatty foods (french fries, bacon, hamburgers, etc.)
Natural and artificial sweeteners like sorbitol, sucralose, and xylitol
6. Pelvic floor exercises. Many mild and moderate cases of bowel incontinence respond to pelvic floor exercises or Kegels. Kegel exercises work out the muscles in the pelvic floor, including the anal sphincter. This article from Medline Plus provides a step-by-step guide.
Necessary products for bowel incontinence care
In some cases, healthy lifestyle changes aren’t enough to prevent unexpected bowel movements. Still, there are plenty of products available to reduce messes and odors, while keeping your loved one’s skin clean and dry
We recommend keeping the following items in an easy-to-access bag or kit in the event of an emergency:
Adult diapers (Pull-ups, reusable diapers, or protective briefs). An adult diaper is a reusable or disposable undergarment that collects urine and stool. They come in various sizes, styles, and absorbances and are designed for people who experience urinary, bowel, or double incontinence. Adult diapers have multiple tabs on either side, allowing for a comfortable, secure fit.
Underpads (Chux). Underpads or Chux are soft, absorbent pads that protect mattresses, chairs, or other types of furniture from urine and fecal matter. They’re made of moisture-wicking materials like fluff wood pulp or polypropylene.
Booster pads. Booster pads are soft, absorbent inserts worn in addition to a diaper or pull-up. They provide an extra layer of protection and help extend the time between changes.
Wipes. Wipes are moist, cloth-like sheets designed to clean up spills and messes. Most adult wipes and baby wipes are formulated to clean the sensitive skin around the buttocks and genitals. They lower the risk of diaper rash or yeast infections and make changing diapers more hygienic.
Gloves. Medical-grade gloves made from vinyl, nitrile, or latex make diaper changes and clean-up more hygienic. They’re disposable, so you throw them away after a single-use.
Skin protectants. Exposure to fecal matter and its fumes increases the risk of skin irritation and rashes. Barrier creams like zinc oxide protect the skin, reducing these and other potentially serious issues.
Clean change of clothing. Unexpected voids can occur at any time. Carrying a fresh change of clothing ensures you’re able to remain clean and dry, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Clean bedding. If your loved one spends most of their time lying down or in a reclined position, you’ll want to change their sheets following each void. Stool and urine are both machine washable.
Paper towels and trash bags. Voids can occur at any time. Having easy access to trash bags and paper towels makes cleanup quick and convenient.
Life hacks for bowel incontinence care
Accidents will happen. If you have bowel incontinence, it’s normal to want to avoid accidents at all costs. But that isn’t necessarily realistic. Healthy lifestyle changes and advanced preparation can reduce accidents and their severity, but these methods aren’t guaranteed. If you’re a caregiver, let your loved one know you understand and are only there to support and assist them.
Remember that successful treatment takes time. Bowel incontinence affects everyone differently and often changes over time. Finding the right products and settling into a daily routine is a process. Try to stay positive and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Support groups like The Bladder & Bowel Community and Beyond My Battle are great places to start.
Please reach out if you have questions
At Carewell, we carry hundreds of products designed to manage light, medium, heavy, and overnight bowel incontinence. If you’re struggling to determine the type that will best meet your loved one’s needs, reach out at any time. Our friendly care team is well-versed in our product selection and will be happy to answer any questions you have. Call (855) 855-1666 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.