What Happens to Your Bladder When You Ignore the Urge to Pee?

when you ignore the urge to pee, you might have an accident in your pants

You know that uncomfortable “gotta go” feeling when we ignore the urge to pee? Sometimes we have to “hold it in” because the bathroom is too far away. Other times, we wait on purpose.

In simple terms, the bladder is like a storage bag for your urine (pee). When it’s full, it needs to empty. But the process of planning bathroom breaks is a bit complicated. Your bladder has to communicate with your brain, and sometimes they don’t agree with each other!

How the brain and bladder plan bathroom breaks

When your bladder fills up, the bladder muscles stretch like a balloon to make room for more urine. Nerves from the bladder muscles send signals up your spinal to your brain. In response, your brain sends back messages to your bladder muscles to squeeze the urine out the urethra. This is when you feel the “urge to pee.”

But wait! Not so fast! Another part of your brain controls the exit strategy from the bladder.

A ring-shaped sphincter muscle acts like a door for the urethra. Another part of your brain helps you get to decide whether to keep the muscles tight so you can hold in your urine. This way, you can choose exactly when and where you pee.

How does the bladder work?

Watch this video to see how the urine flows from the ureters into the bladder. When the bladder fills up and urethra’s sphincter muscles open up, the bladder can squeeze urine out the urethra!

Where exactly is the bladder located in the human body?

The bladder sits in your pelvis between your hips, just below your belly and above your legs. If your bladder is very full, doctors can sometimes feel it in your lower belly.

The tube that takes urine out of the bladder is called the urethra.

How big is the human bladder?

When your bladder is empty, it is about the same size and shape as a pear.

Depending on how much urine the bladder collects, it can stretch many inches longer.

How much urine can the bladder hold?

Most people can hold around 2 cups (that’s about 500 milliliters) of urine. But even if you can “hold it” for a long time, it’s a good idea to empty your bladder throughout the day.

Doctors recommend going to the bathroom at least every 3 hours so that your bladder doesn’t get overstretched.

An adult bladder can hold about 2 cups of urine. Don't ignore the urge to pee.

What can happen if you ignore the urge to pee?

Sometimes, kids ignore their body signals because they’re having too much fun during a game or activity. Maybe they are trying to avoid public restrooms. Or maybe they feel embarrassed about asking to pee.

bathroom urgency and discomfort from ignoring the urge to pee

Just like kids, many adults have a habit of holding their urine too long. They might feel stressed from a very busy work day or all of the work that needs to be done at home.

Once in a while, it’s okay to wait a little longer. But if your bladder is constantly at max capacity, there are 2 common problems:

  1. The bladder muscle can get overstretched and weak. People who lose control of their bladder can accidentally leak pee on their pants.
  2. When urine sits in the bladder too long, bacteria can grow and multiply in there. This can cause an infection in your urinary tract.
  • EMPTY EARLY – Don’t wait until the last minute! The right time to go is when you start noticing your bladder getting full, but you have enough time to find a toilet.
  • EMPTY OFTEN: Go to the bathroom every 3-4 hours or around 4-8 times each day.
  • EMPTY COMPLETELY – Make sure you get all of the pee out before rushing off to the next activity!

Learn more about how your bladder holds pee

Renal system experiment from Human Body Learning Lab activity book for kids

From the kidneys down the ureters and then into the bladder, you can see how your bladder holds pee and how pee flows out of it. Check out a fun and simple activity on page 100 in the Human Body Learning Lab book!

Human Body Learning Lab is filled with kid-friendly science facts, memorable experiments, diverse realistic images, and practical health tips.

Have fun learning about your body!

Learn More About Your Amazing Body

Updated on April 15, 2023 by Betty Choi, MD

Updated on April 15, 2023

by Betty Choi, MD