The menopause is when a woman stops having periods and loses the ability to become pregnant naturally. The ovaries stop releasing, or run out of eggs, but it isn’t a sudden process, often happening over the course of a few years, the menopause affects all females at some point. Hot flushes are arguably the most famous symptom, often causing embarrassment for sufferers, though this isn’t the only sign that you may be going through the menopause. Night sweats, sleeping problems and low mood are amongst other tell-tale signs that point to the same condition.
For some reason, the menopause is seen as an embarrassing and almost “taboo” topic, but it’s important to talk about your symptoms, especially to a doctor. The main thing to remember is that you aren’t going through this alone, and it’s a completely natural process, however uncomfortable it may be.
Both physical and mental symptoms can affect women going through the menopause, and both should be taken as seriously as each other. Whilst the menopause can’t be reversed, the symptoms can be managed whilst you’re going through it – a process that some women experience for around a decade.
Treatments include medications such as hormone replacement therapies (HRT), talking therapies for mental symptoms, and other, non-hormonal medications such as antidepressants.
“The menopause is something that women often dread when they reach a certain age. Horror stories in the tabloids or from friends and family may scare you into thinking it’s going to be a horrible time. Some women do struggle with their symptoms, but the good news is that medications are available to alleviate some of the more embarrassing or uncomfortable ones. Most women experience the menopause with tolerable or mild discomfort, but it’s an extremely personal thing to go through, so don’t let other peoples’ stories scare you.”
What is the menopause?
The menopause is a natural process that happens to all females at some point, most commonly in their 40s or 50s. It is defined as when a woman stops producing eggs and has her last menstrual cycle, or period. When this happens, the woman is unable to become pregnant naturally. Symptoms of the menopause can start years before your last period, and you may still be experiencing them for years after due to it being a gradual process. The average amount of time that women experience menopausal symptoms is around 4 years, but it’s not uncommon for it to last around a decade. Perimenopause refers to the space of time between the onset of symptoms and a woman’s last period, whilst postmenopausal describes women who have finished menstruating. This is confirmed when you have gone a full 12 months without a period.
The average age in the UK for women to go through the menopause is 51, though just like starting your periods, ending them can happen a few years sooner or later to the average. However, some women may experience symptoms much earlier, in their 30’s or younger. In this case, it is important to visit your GP as you could be experiencing premature menopause; diagnosed in women aged 40 or under.
Many women find the process uncomfortable and embarrassing due to some of the physiological symptoms it can cause, as well as the strain it can put on your mental health. Whilst it can’t be reversed or “cured” due to it being an inevitable process, the symptoms can be managed with medications and complementary treatments in order to make it as easy as possible for those experiencing it.
There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” description for the severity of symptoms, as it’s a very personal thing to go through, but it is possible to outline some of the most common signs that might indicate the start of the menopause.
What are the symptoms of the menopause?
Considering that all women go through the menopause at some point, it’s a subject that many consider to be too embarrassing to talk about, or “taboo”, so a lot of women may feel bewildered when it comes to noticing changes and whether they may be menopausal. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Night sweats
- Hot flushes
- Sleeping problems (insomnia)
- Low mood
- Reduced libido (lower desire for sex)
- Memory problems
- Concentration problems
- Vaginal dryness
It looks like a worrying list, but like with many conditions, you may not experience all of the symptoms, and the severity of them will vary greatly. A majority of women only have mild or bearable symptoms, and in those that struggle, there are treatments available to make it easier, as well as lifestyle changes such as taking more regular exercise and cutting out caffeine and nicotine.
Some women also report experiencing urological symptoms such as an increased urgency to pee, and leaking urine. UTIs are also more common in menopausal and post-menopausal women due to the changes taking place in the urethra, making it more prone to bacterial infections.
Bleeding after the menopause is also reported by many women, and isn’t usually a great cause for concern, however, if you experience this, please visit your GP as in some cases it can indicate certain cancers such as womb cancer. Your doctor should want to rule this out, so it’s better to be safe than sorry and inform your GP of any changes in bleeding pattern once you’ve gone 12 months without a period.
What are the treatments for menopause?
Many women decide to use a combination of self-care, home remedies, and prescription medication to treat the symptoms of menopause. For example, hot flushes and night sweats can be combated by keeping cool, or dressing in layers so you can remove a cardigan or vest if you feel uncomfortably hot. Other methods include keeping a fan by the bed or on your desk if you work in an office, and several women choose to cut out caffeine, nicotine and alcohol to reduce the same symptom.
In terms of prescription medication, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is commonly prescribed to ease the process. HRT works by replacing oestrogen, as the body no longer produces the same amount of it on its own. The medication regulates to hormones back to a level that you’re used to, reducing many of the menopausal symptoms, and can even lower your risk of developing osteoporosis. As with several medications, there are risks associated with using HRT, such as an increased risk of blood clots, DVT, and certain types of cancer, but your GP won’t give you any medication that could harm you once the risks are calculated. If you buy HRT online through Doctor4U, you will be required to complete a medical questionnaire so our own doctors can determine whether it’s the right treatment for you. Most women on HRT find that their symptoms improve within 3 months.
The Mirena IUS is also licenced as a hormonal treatment for the menopause, though only for 4 years as opposed to 5 years when using it for contraception. On the subject of contraception, some women believe that it is no longer necessary to use it when going through the menopause. To prevent pregnancy, you should use some form of contraception (check with your GP if you’re using HRT) up until you’ve gone 12 months without a period. After this, you should still use condoms to protect against STIs.
Non-hormonal drugs such as antidepressants and clonidine are also available to treat symptoms of the menopause, but they aren’t given as a first-line solution. However, a doctor will be able to advise you on whether they’re suitable for you.
In terms of home treatments and remedies, there are things that you can do to combat embarrassing symptoms such as leaking urine. Some women choose to wear sanitary pads or incontinence pads for protection during daily activities, so whilst your days of wearing pads for periods may be over, you might be just as well keeping some pads in stock should you experience slight urinary incontinence, especially when coughing, sneezing, or laughing. Lubricants are available to help with vaginal dryness, as many menopausal women complain of painful sex due to lack of natural moisture.
Will I have an early menopause if I started my periods early?
In a word, no. This is a myth that is widely believed. A female is born with a set amount of eggs, and some women have more than others. The menopause happens when your ovaries stop producing these eggs, so there is no correlation between what age you started your periods and what age you begin the menopause.
If you’re experiencing symptoms before you reach 40, you may be going through premature menopause. Sometimes there’s no cause for this, but some cancer treatments and surgeries such as a hysterectomy or ovary removal can induce an early menopause.
Can I prevent the menopause?
Unfortunately not, but it might not be as bad as you think. As mentioned before, many of the symptoms are manageable with medication and home remedies, if you even find that you need treatment at all.