Menopause is defined by the cessation of menstruation. A woman enters menopause when she hasn't had a menstrual period for a full year. It is no longer possible to become pregnant once this occurs. Women generally reach menopause between the ages of 40 and 56, though the vast majority experience menopause after the age of 45.
Perimenopause is the period leading up to the permanent cessation of menstruation. It is characterized by major hormone fluctuations and signals the start of the transition to menopause.
Every woman experiences menopause very differently. Some symptoms may be hardly noticeable, while others might be more uncomfortable. The most common symptom is irregular periods, which may become more or less frequent until they stop completely. There are a number of other possible symptoms:
- Hot flashes
- Heavy night sweats
- Weight gain
- Joint pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Vaginal dryness
- Memory problems
- Mood swings
- Urinary tract infections
- Difficulty concentrating
Symptoms may last between 6 months and 10 years, though for some women they can last even longer.
Causes and triggers
Menopause is not a health problem. It's a transition that all women eventually experience as part of the natural aging process. Over time, a woman's ovaries produce fewer hormones (estrogen and progesterone). Some of the symptoms of menopause are caused by these hormone fluctuations; others are simply due to aging.
The following factors may increase the frequency of certain symptoms, such as hot flashes:
- Tobacco use
- Consumption of alcohol, spicy foods, or coffee
- Certain medications
For most women, there's no need for specific treatment. The following lifestyle changes can help alleviate certain symptoms:
- Adopt a healthy and balanced diet
- Quit smoking
- Consume caffeinated beverages and alcohol in moderation
- Do relaxation activities to help manage stress (e.g., yoga, meditation)
Lubricants and moisturizers can be used to relieve mild vaginal symptoms such as dryness. Lubricants can be used during sexual intercourse, while moisturizers can be used more regularly, around 2 to 3 times per week. These products can be purchased over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. Ask your health care professional for advice on which product(s) might be right for you.
For women who need more help managing their symptoms, medications are an option. Hormone therapy (taking hormone supplements) is the most effective method of controlling hot flashes. Other medications, hormone free, are also available. Talk to your health care provider to find out what solutions are available to you.
When should I see a health care professional?
If you experience menopausal symptoms before the age of 40, you should consult a health care professional. You should also speak to a health care professional if you experience any of the following:
- Very heavy bleeding
- Bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after sex
If your menopausal symptoms are causing significant discomfort, it's worth speaking to a health care professional. They'll be able to suggest different options.