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BACKGROUND: The prevalence of urinary symptoms that impact on quality-of-life will be important in determining resource allocation in primary care groups. AIM: To determine the prevalence of urinary symptoms and their perceived impact in a community population of women. METHOD: A postal survey using a validated self-completed questionnaire among all women aged over 18 years and registered with one general practice in a major British city. The prevalence rates and perceived impact of a wide range of urinary symptoms and their relationship with age was determined. Data were analysed using the chi-squared test and the chi-squared test for trend. Spearman's rank correlation was used to assess the relationship between symptom severity and perceived impact. RESULTS: The number of completed questionnaires returned was 2075, giving an 80% response rate. Of these, the number of women who reported some degree of incontinence in the previous month was 1414 (69%), although only 578 (30%) indicated that it had social or hygienic impact. Other lower urinary tract symptoms reported included nocturia (19%), poor stream (19%), urgency (61%), and dysuria (23%). The most troublesome symptoms were incontinence for no obvious reason, nocturnal incontinence, and nocturia, with 73%, 69%, and 63% of sufferers, respectively, finding these symptoms troublesome. CONCLUSIONS: Incontinence and other urinary symptoms are more common than previously thought. These symptoms are not always perceived as bothersome or as having a social or hygienic impact, and therefore many women who report urinary leakage do not require treatment. Nocturnal symptoms in women are commoner than might have been supposed and are extremely troublesome to sufferers.