The menopause is a natural process and, as they grow older, all women will experience it. Oestrogen levels start to decline, meaning periods become less frequent and eventually stop altogether. It can sometimes take a few months or years for periods to stop completely, or they may end abruptly.
Symptoms usually begin between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age for women being 51. Menopause before the age of 40 is unusual and considered 'premature'. It's experienced by approximately one in 100 women.
Symptoms of the menopause
Each woman's experience of the menopause is unique to her, and while there are common symptoms, you may not experience them all. Symptoms include:
• Hot flushes – commonly affecting the head, neck and chest and lasting for a few minutes
• Menstrual irregularity – irregularities may last up to four years and the cycle may lengthen to several months or shorten to two-three weeks
• Night sweats – these persist in more than half of women for more than seven years
• Vaginal dryness – vaginal symptoms may not appear until five to 10 years after menopause
• Sleeping problems, anxiety or feeling low
• Diminished sex drive
• Difficulty with concentration or memory
• Reduced muscle mass
• Recurrent urinary tract infections, such as cystitis
• Palpitations – irregular heartbeats that become more noticeable
Menopausal symptoms can start months or even years before menstruation stops, and last for a few years after your last period.
Treatments for menopause symptoms
Symptoms of the menopause can feel overwhelming and hard to deal with, but there are ways to manage them. If your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, your Doctor may suggest lifestyle changes or offer treatments, including:
• Doing regular exercise
• Eating a healthy and balanced diet
• Using vaginal oestrogen creams or lubricants to help vaginal dryness
• Cognitive behavioural therapy – talking therapy to alleviate anxiety or low moods. Yoga or meditation may also help with this
• Hormone replacement therapy – implants, skin patches, tablets and gels that replace oestrogen to help ease symptoms
Women who have been through menopause are at a greater risk of osteoporosis (weak bones) as a result of lower oestrogen levels. Exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, taking calcium and/or vitamin D supplements (speak to your Doctor if you feel you’re not getting enough of these), getting plenty of sunlight, stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol can all help reduce your chance of developing the condition.
If you're experiencing hot flushes and night sweats, it may help to wear light clothing, keep your bedroom cool at night, take a cool shower, use a fan or have a cold drink. By reducing stress levels and avoiding potential triggers (such as spicy food, caffeine and alcohol) some women are able to better manage hot flushes and night sweats. Some also find that regular exercise helps.
Many women choose to use HRT to help alleviate their menopause symptoms, after discussing the benefits and risks with their Doctor. The two types of HRT are combined oestrogen and progestogen, and oestrogen-only HRT (often prescribed for women who’ve had their womb removed in a hysterectomy).
When to consult your Doctor
If you're experiencing symptoms of menopause before the age of 45, your Doctor can make a diagnosis, based on your symptoms, family history and blood tests. They can then recommend a course of treatment or ways for you to manage the symptoms.
When you're over 45 and have menopausal symptoms that are causing discomfort or distress, a visit to your Doctor can be reassuring and you can discuss possible treatments and ways of coping. Your Doctor can refer you to a menopause specialist if your symptoms don’t get better after undergoing treatment or if you’re unable to take HRT.
• If you’re experiencing menopausal symptoms and they’re causing discomfort or anxiety, consult your Doctor. Make sure you also see your Doctor if you experience menopause symptoms before the age of 45
• Follow a healthy lifestyle by eating a varied and balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, stopping smoking if you smoke and limiting your alcohol intake
• A number of treatments are available to help treat menopause symptoms, the main one is hormone replacement therapy but other options are available for some symptoms