Menopause: Symptoms, treatments and common questions

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Menopause. It’s a condition that affects millions of women, and it involves some pretty significant changes -- as well as symptoms.

Here are a few answers to some of the most common questions about menopause.

What is menopause, and when does this usually happen?

Menopause is defined as not having your period for 12 months -- a change that signifies the end of all monthly menstrual cycles you will experience. It happens when sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone begin to decrease.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a non-profit organization that focuses on clinical practice, education and research, menopause may occur in your 40s and 50s, but the average age in the United States is 51.

What are the symptoms of menopause?

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A woman is pictured having a hot flash in this undated stock photo.

The following symptoms can occur during the years leading up to menopause, according to the Mayo Clinic:

- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Chills
- Night sweats
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Weight gain and slowed metabolism
- Thinning hair and dry skin
- Loss of breast fullness

What is perimenopause?

Perimenopause, or the “transition to menopause,” refers to the years leading up to menopause when the reproductive function starts to slow down. Irregular periods are common, and many of the other symptoms may resemble those seen in menopause. According to the North American Menopause Society, a nonprofit organization based in Ohio, this transition may last an average of four to eight years. Importantly, pregnancy is still possible during perimenopause.

What is premature or early menopause?

Early menopause occurs before the age of 40. There could be a number of reasons, including genetic or autoimmune causes.

I keep hearing about hot flashes ... What are those?

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A woman is pictured having a hot flash in this undated stock photo.

Hot flashes are experienced by the majority of women going through menopause. Changes in hormone levels –- specifically estrogen -- can cause the blood vessels in the skin to dilate, leading to sweating, rapid heart rate and flushing/redness of the face. Hot flashes can be associated with mood changes and other symptoms.

When a hot flash is occurring, there can be a feeling of intense heat in the face, neck, or other parts of the body. Although skin temperature may briefly change during this time, there is no change in core temperature.

What can I do to make menopause easier? Are there any treatments?

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A woman is pictured with insomnia in this undated stock photo.

Menopause treatments focus mainly on helping to manage symptoms. Your doctor will be able to explain the risks and benefits of different therapies.

These include:

Hormone therapy: Estrogen, usually in combination with progesterone
Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)
Vaginal estrogen: used to relieve vaginal dryness
Antidepressants: to help with mood symptoms
Vitamin D: to maintain bone density (strength)
Alternative medicines

What is the treatment for a hot flash?

Daily exercise, limiting triggers, and sleeping in a comfortable environment can all help to prevent or reduce the duration of a hot flash. If none of these options work, women can speak to their physician about starting a variety of treatment options, ranging from over the counter products to antidepressants and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Will there be any long term health consequences?

The change in hormone levels that occur during menopause may lead to increases in risk for heart disease, stroke, or osteoporosis. There may be additional health issues that come up as well so routine follow-up and screening with a physician are recommended.

Where can I go for more information on this topic?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more information available on its website.

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