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* This is the Consumer Version. *

Menopause ˈmen-ə-ˌpȯz, ˈmēn-

By Margery Gass, MD

Menopause is the permanent end of menstrual periods and thus of fertility.

  • For up to several years before and just after menopause, estrogen levels fluctuate widely, periods become irregular, and symptoms (such as hot flashes) may occur.

  • After menopause, bone density decreases.

  • Menopause is usually obvious, but blood tests may be done to confirm it.

  • Certain measures, including drugs, can lessen symptoms.

During the reproductive years, menstrual periods usually occur in approximately monthly cycles, with an egg released from the ovary (ovulation) about 2 weeks after the first day of a period. For this cycle to occur regularly, the ovaries must produce enough of the hormones estrogen and progesterone (see Menstrual Cycle).

Menopause occurs because as women age, the ovaries run out of usable eggs and stop producing estrogen and progesterone. During the years before menopause, production of estrogen and progesterone begins to decrease, and menstrual periods and ovulation occur less often. Eventually, menstrual periods and ovulation end permanently, and pregnancy can no longer occur naturally. A woman’s last period can be identified only later, after she has had no periods for at least 1 year. (Women who do not wish to become pregnant should use birth control until 1 year has passed since their last menstrual period.)

Perimenopause refers to the several years before and the 1 year after the last menstrual period. How many years of perimenopause precede the last menstrual period varies greatly. During perimenopause, estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate widely. These fluctuations are thought to cause the menopausal symptoms experienced by many women in their 40s.

The menopausal transition is the part of perimenopause that leads up to the last menses. It is characterized by changes in the pattern of menstrual periods.

In the United States, the average age for menopause is about 52. However, menopause may occur normally in women as young as 40. Menopause may start before age 52 in women who

  • Smoke

  • Live at a high altitude

  • Are malnourished

Menopause is considered premature when it occurs before age 40. Premature menopause is also called premature ovarian failure or primary ovarian insufficiency.

Did You Know...

  • Symptoms of menopause can start years before menstrual periods end.

  • The average age for menopause is about 52, but anywhere between age 40 to 55+ is considered normal.

Symptoms of Menopause

Perimenopause symptoms

During perimenopause, symptoms may be nonexistent, mild, moderate, or severe. Symptoms may last from 6 months to about 10 years, sometimes longer.

Irregular menstrual periods may be the first symptom of perimenopause. Typically, periods occur more often, then less often, but any pattern is possible. Periods may be shorter or longer, lighter or heavier. They may not occur for months, then become regular again. In some women, periods occur regularly until menopause.

Hot flashes affect 75 to 85% of women. They usually begin before periods stop. Most women have hot flashes for more than 1 year, and more than one half of women have them for more than 4 years. Usually, hot flashes become milder and occur less frequently as time passes.

What causes hot flashes is unknown. But it may involve a resetting of the brain's thermostat (the hypothalamus), which controls body temperature. As a result, very small increases in temperature can make women feel hot. Hot flashes may be related to fluctuations in hormone levels. There is no evidence that spicy foods or alcoholic beverages trigger hot flashes.

During a hot flash, blood vessels near the skin surface widen (dilate). As a result, blood flow increases, causing the skin, especially on the head and neck, to become red and warm (flushed). Women feel warm or hot, and perspiration may be profuse. Hot flashes are sometimes called hot flushes because the face can become red.

A hot flash lasts from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and may be followed by chills. Night sweats are hot flashes that occur at night.

Other symptoms that may occur around the time of menopause include mood changes, depression, irritability, anxiety, nervousness, sleep disturbances (including insomnia), loss of concentration, headache, and fatigue. Many women experience these symptoms during perimenopause and assume that menopause is the cause. However, evidence supporting a connection between menopause and these symptoms is mixed. These symptoms are not directly related to the decreases in estrogen levels that occur with menopause. And many other factors (such as aging itself or a disorder) could explain the symptoms.

Night sweats may disturb sleep, contributing to fatigue, irritability, loss of concentration, and mood changes. In such cases, these symptoms may be indirectly (through night sweats) related to menopause. However, during menopause, sleep disturbances are common even among women who do not have hot flashes. Midlife stresses (such as struggles with adolescents, concerns about aging, caring for aging parents, and changes in marital relationship) may contribute to sleep disturbances. Thus, the relationship between fatigue, irritability, loss of concentration, and mood changes seems less clear.

Did You Know...

  • Genitourinary syndrome of menopause is a new term used to refer to symptoms that affect the vagina and urinary tract and that are caused by menopause, such as vaginal dryness, pain during sexual intercourse, and urinary urgency.

Symptoms after menopause

Many of the symptoms that occur during perimenopause, although disturbing, become less frequent and less intense after menopause. However, the decrease in estrogen levels causes changes that can continue to negatively affect health (for example, increasing the risk of osteoporosis). These changes may worsen, unless measures to prevent them are taken. The following may be affected:

  • Reproductive tract: The lining of the vagina becomes thinner, drier, and less elastic (a condition called vaginal atrophy or sometimes inappropriately called atrophic vaginitis). These changes may make sexual intercourse painful. Other sex organs—the labia minora, clitoris, uterus, and ovaries—decrease in size. Sex drive (libido) commonly decreases with age. Most women can still have an orgasm, but some require more time to reach orgasm.

  • Urinary tract: The lining of the urethra becomes thinner, and the urethra becomes shorter. Because of these changes, microorganisms can enter the body more easily, and some women develop urinary tract infections more easily. A woman with a urinary tract infection may feel a burning sensation when she urinates. After menopause, the need to urinate may suddenly become compelling (called urinary urgency), sometimes resulting in urinary incontinence—the unintended passage of urine. Urinary incontinence becomes more common and severe with age. However, how much menopause contributes to incontinence is unclear. Many other factors, such as the effects of childbirth, obesity, and the use of hormone therapy, contribute to incontinence.

  • Skin: The decrease in estrogen, as well as aging itself, causes a decrease in the amount of collagen (a protein that makes skin strong) and elastin (a protein that makes skin elastic). Thus, the skin may become thinner, drier, less elastic, and more vulnerable to injury.

  • Bone: The decrease in estrogen often leads to a decrease in bone density and sometimes to osteoporosis because estrogen helps maintain bone. Bone becomes less dense and weaker, making fractures more likely. During the first 2 years after menopause, bone density decreases rapidly. After that, it decreases by about 1 to 2% each year.

  • Fat (lipid) levels: After menopause, levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL—the bad) cholesterol, increase in women. Levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL—the good) cholesterol remain about the same as before menopause. The change in LDL levels may partly explain why atherosclerosis and thus coronary artery disease become more common among women after menopause. However, whether these changes result from aging or from the decrease in estrogen levels after menopause is unclear. Until menopause, the high estrogen levels may protect against coronary artery disease.

Genitourinary syndrome of menopause is a new, more accurate term used to refer to symptoms that affect the vagina and urinary tract and that are caused by menopause, such as vaginal dryness, pain during sexual intercourse, and urinary urgency.

Diagnosis of Menopause

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Rarely blood tests to measure hormone levels

In about three fourths of women, menopause is obvious. Thus, laboratory tests are usually not needed.

If menopause begins several years before age 50 or if symptoms are not clear-cut, tests may be done to check for disorders that can disrupt menstrual periods. Rarely, if menopause or perimenopause needs to be confirmed, blood tests are done to measure levels of estrogen and follicle-stimulating hormone (which stimulates the ovaries to produce estrogen and progesterone).

Before any treatment is started, doctors do the following:

  • Ask women about their medical and family history

  • Do a physical examination, including breast and pelvic examinations and measurement of blood pressure

A woman's medical history and family history help doctors determine her risk of developing certain disorders after menopause.

Mammography, if it has not been done recently, is also done. Blood tests may be done, and bone density may be measured, particularly in women with risk factors for osteoporosis. Bone density is measured in all women at age 65.

Treatment of Menopause

  • General measures

  • Certain drugs

  • Complementary and alternative medicine

  • Hormone therapy

Understanding what happens during perimenopause can help women cope with the symptoms. Talking with other women who have gone through menopause or with their doctor may also help.

Treatment of menopause focuses on relieving symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. General measures may help, but when other treatment is needed, the most effective is

General measures

The following may help relieve hot flashes:

  • Wearing layers of clothing, which can be taken off when a woman feels hot and which can be put on when she feels cold, can help her cope with hot flashes.

  • Wearing clothing that breathes (such as cotton underwear and sleepwear) or that can wick away moisture (such as certain kinds of underwear and exercise clothes) may enhance comfort.

  • Avoiding hot environments and bright lights may also help.

  • Hypnosis by a qualified health care practitioner may help some women.

Although regular exercise and/or relaxation techniques may be of general benefit to women, they are not thought to relieve hot flashes.

Bladder control may be improved by Kegel exercises. For these exercises, a woman tightens the pelvic muscles as if stopping urine flow. Women may be taught how to use biofeedback to help them learn to control their pelvic muscles. Biofeedback is a method of bringing unconscious biologic processes under conscious control. It involves using electronic devices to measure information about these processes and to report it back to the conscious mind.

If vaginal dryness makes sexual intercourse painful, an over-the-counter vaginal lubricant may help. For some women, regularly applying a vaginal moisturizer helps. Staying sexually active also helps by stimulating blood flow to the vagina and the surrounding tissues and by keeping tissues flexible.

Drugs

Several types of drugs can help relieve some of the symptoms associated with menopause.

Gabapentin, an anticonvulsant, may reduce the frequency of hot flashes.

An antidepressant, such as fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, or venlafaxine, may relieve hot flashes but are less effective than hormone therapy. Antidepressants may also help relieve depression, anxiety, and irritability.

A sleep aid is sometimes recommended to relieve insomnia.

Some Drugs Used to Treat Symptoms and Effects of Menopause

Drug

Advantages

Disadvantages

Female hormones

*Estrogen therapy, with or without a progestin

Relieves hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and pain during intercourse

Helps prevent osteoporosis

Combined therapy:

  • Increases the risk of blood clots in the legs and lungs, gallstones, and urinary incontinence

  • Increases the risk of breast cancer after 3–5 years of use

  • May increase the risk of coronary artery disease in older women

*Estrogen alone:

  • Increases the risk of blood clots in the legs and lungs, gallstones, and urinary incontinence

  • Increases the risk of endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus)

  • Increases the risk of breast cancer but probably not for many years

A progestin, such as medroxyprogesterone acetate or micronized progesterone (a natural rather than synthetic progesterone)

Reduces the risk of endometrial cancer, which is associated with taking estrogen alone

When higher doses are used, relieves hot flashes

Does not relieve vaginal dryness

May decrease HDL (the good) cholesterol levels

May increase the risk of blood clots in the legs and lungs

Has less clear effects on the risk of other disorders

Micronized progesterone: May have a less negative effect on HDL cholesterol levels but may increase the risk of blood clots in the legs and lungs

Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)

Ospemifene

Relieves pain during intercourse

May worsen hot flashes temporarily

Antidepressants

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and sustained-release paroxetine

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, such as venlafaxine

Relieve depression, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia

May relieve hot flashes

Depending on the drug, can have side effects, such as sexual dysfunction, nausea, diarrhea, weight loss (in the short term), weight gain (in the long term), drowsiness (sedation), dry mouth, confusion, and increased or decreased blood pressure

Anticonvulsant (only one)

Gabapentin

May reduce the frequency of hot flashes

Can have side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, rash, and leg swelling

*Determining whether the risk of certain disorders is increased by estrogen alone or by estrogen plus a progestin (combination therapy) is difficult.

HDL = high-density lipoprotein.

Complementary and alternative medicine

Some women take medicinal herbs and other supplements to relieve hot flashes, irritability, mood changes, and memory loss. Examples are black cohosh, dong quai, evening primrose, ginseng, and St. John’s wort. However, such remedies are not regulated as drugs are. That is, their manufacturers are not required to show that they are safe or effective, and what their ingredients are and how much of each ingredient a product contains are not standardized (see Overview of Medicinal Herbs and Nutraceuticals : Safety and Effectiveness). Also, these treatments do not appear to be effective.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid that is produced in the adrenal glands and that is converted into sex hormones ( estrogens and androgens). It is available as a dietary supplement that is produced from substances in wild yams. DHEA appears to relieve vaginal dryness and other symptoms of vaginal atrophy.

Studies of soy protein have had mixed results. One soy product, called S-equol, may help relieve hot flashes in some women.

Some supplements (for example, kava) can be harmful. Furthermore, some supplements can interact with other drugs and can worsen some disorders.

Concerns about using standard hormone therapy have lead to an interest in using hormones derived from plants such as yams and soy. These hormones have nearly the same molecular structure as hormones made by the body and thus are called bioidentical hormones. Many of the hormones used in standard hormone therapy are so-called bioidentical hormones derived from plants. Hormones used in standard hormone therapy come in many doses and have been tested and approved. Use of these hormones is closely monitored.

However, sometimes a pharmacist custom-makes (compounds) bioidentical hormones for a person according to a health care practitioner's prescription. These are called compounded bioidentical hormones. Their production is not well-regulated. Thus, many doses, combinations, and forms are possible, and purity, consistency, and potency of the products varies. Compounded bioidentical hormones are often marketed as substitutes for standard hormone therapy and sometimes as a better, safer treatment than standard hormone therapy. But there is no evidence that compounded products are safer, more effective, or even as effective as standard hormone therapy. Sometimes women are not told that compounded bioidentical hormone products have the same risks as standard hormones.

Women who are considering taking such supplements are advised to discuss them with a doctor.

Hormone Therapy for Menopause

Hormone therapy can relieve moderate to severe symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness. However, hormone therapy may increase the risk of developing certain serious disorders. Whether to take hormone therapy is a decision that must be made by a woman and her doctor based on the woman’s individual situation. For many women, risks outweigh benefits, so this therapy is not recommended. However, for some women, depending on their medical conditions and risk factors, benefits may outweigh risks. When hormone therapy is used, doctors prescribe the lowest hormone dose that controls symptoms and for the shortest time needed.

Hormone therapy can include

  • Estrogen

  • A progestin (such as progesterone or medroxyprogesterone acetate)

  • Both

All hormones used in hormone therapy are made in laboratories. They may or may not be identical to those made in the body, but the way they act in the body is very similar. Progestins resemble progesterone , a female hormone made by the body.

Estrogen and progestins come in several forms. Estradiol and conjugated estrogens (a mixture of estrogens) are commonly used forms of estrogen .

Women who have a uterus are usually given estrogen plus a progestin (combination hormone therapy) because taking estrogen alone increases the risk of cancer of the uterine lining (endometrial cancer). The progestin helps protect against this cancer. Women who no longer have a uterus may take estrogen alone. The benefits and risks depend on whether the hormones are taken alone or together.

Estrogens with or without a progestin: Benefits and risks

Estrogen has several benefits:

  • Hot flashes and other symptoms: Estrogen is the most effective treatment for hot flashes.

  • Drying and thinning of vaginal and urinary tract tissues: Estrogen can prevent these tissues from drying and thinning. Thus, it can reduce pain with sexual intercourse. When the only problem a woman has is drying and thinning of these tissues, doctors may recommend a form of estrogen that is inserted into the vagina. These forms includes low-dose estrogen tablets, a low-dose estrogen ring, and a low-dose estrogen cream.

  • An urgent need to urinate and recurring urinary tract infections: Forms of estrogen that are inserted into the vagina (creams, tablets, or rings) help relieve these problems.

  • Osteoporosis: Estrogen , with or without a progestin, helps prevent or slow the progression of osteoporosis. However, taking hormone therapy for the sole purpose of preventing osteoporosis is no longer recommended. Most women can take a bisphosphonate or another drug to help prevent osteoporosis instead. Bisphosphonates increase bone mass by reducing the amount of bone the body breaks down as it re-forms bones. The body continuously breaks bone down and re-forms it to help bones adjust to the changing demands placed on them. As people age, more bone is broken down than is re-formed.

Estrogen, taken with or without a progestin, increases the risk of the following:

  • Endometrial cancer: If women who have a uterus take estrogen without a progestin, the risk of endometrial cancer is increased. The risk increases with higher doses and longer use of estrogen . Taking a progestin with estrogen almost eliminates the risk of endometrial cancer, reducing the risk below that for women who do not take hormone therapy. A woman whose uterus has been removed has no risk of developing this cancer and thus does not need to take a progestin. Usually, estrogen , with or without a progestin, is not prescribed for women who have had advanced endometrial cancer or who have vaginal bleeding (which can be a symptom of endometrial cancer) unless endometrial cancer has been ruled out. A progestin without estrogen may be prescribed for certain women who have endometrial cancer.

  • Breast cancer: The risk of breast cancer begins to increase after taking estrogen plus a progestin for about 3 to 5 years. But if estrogen is taken alone at the beginning of menopause, risk may not begin to increase until after 10 years or even 15 years.

  • Stroke

  • Blood clots in the legs and lungs

  • Gallstones

  • Urinary incontinence: Taking estrogen increases the risk of developing incontinence and worsens preexisting incontinence.

For certain disorders, determining whether the risk is increased by estrogen alone or by estrogen plus a progestin (combination therapy) is difficult.

Although taking hormone therapy increases the risk of all the above disorders, the risk is still low in healthy women who take hormone therapy for a short time during or shortly after perimenopause. Risk of most of these disorders increases with age, particularly 10 years or more past menopause, whether hormone therapy is taken or not. In older women, taking estrogen plus a progestin may also increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

Risks of hormone therapy are thought to be lower when low doses of estrogen are used. Forms of estrogen that are inserted into the vagina (such as estrogen creams or tablets or rings that contain estrogen ) often have lower doses than tablets taken by mouth.

Generally, women who have breast cancer, coronary artery disease, or blood clots in the legs, who have had a stroke, or who have risk factors for these disorders should not use estrogen therapy.

Combination hormone therapy reduces the risk of the following:

  • Osteoporosis

  • Colorectal cancer

Progestins: Benefits and risks

Progestins have some benefits:

  • Endometrial cancer: Taking a progestin with estrogen almost eliminates the risk of endometrial cancer in women who have a uterus.

  • Hot flashes: High-dose progestins can relieve hot flashes.

Progestins may increase the risk of the following:

  • A decrease in HDL (the good) cholesterol levels: Progestins may have this effect. However, micronized progesterone (a natural rather than synthetic progesterone) appears to have a less negative effect on HDL levels than other progestins.

  • Blood clots in the legs and lungs.

The effect of a progestins alone on the risk of other disorders is not clear.

Side effects

Side effects of estrogen and progestins, especially at high doses, may include nausea, breast tenderness, headache, fluid retention, and mood changes.

Forms of hormonal therapy

Estrogen and/or a progestin can be taken in several ways:

  • Estrogen or a progestin tablets taken by mouth (oral form)

  • Estrogen creams, tablets, or rings inserted into the vagina (vaginal form)

  • Estrogen lotions, sprays, or gels applied externally to the skin (topical form)

  • Estrogen or combination estrogen-progestin skin patches (transdermal form)

As tablets taken by mouth, estrogen and a progestin may be taken as two tablets or as a combination tablet. Commonly, estrogen and a progestin are taken every day. This schedule may result in irregular vaginal bleeding during the first year or more of therapy. (However, if bleeding continues for more than a year, women should see their doctor.) Alternatively, estrogen may be taken daily, with a progestin taken for 12 to 14 days each month. With this schedule, most women have monthly vaginal bleeding on the days after they take progestin.

Vaginal forms of estrogen are inserted into the vagina. These forms include

  • A cream that is inserted with a plastic applicator

  • A tablet that is inserted with a plastic applicator

  • A ring that contains estrogen (similar to a diaphragm)

There are many different products, which come in different doses and which contain different types of estrogen . Creams and rings may contain a high or low dose of estrogen . If a high dose of estrogen is used in vaginal forms, women are also given a progestin to reduce the risk of endometrial cancer. Usually, a low dose is sufficient for vaginal symptoms.

Using a vaginal form of estrogen may be more effective than taking estrogen by mouth for symptoms that affect the vagina (such as drying or thinning). Such treatment helps prevent intercourse from being painful.

As a lotion, spray, or gel , estrogen can be applied to the skin.

As a patch, estrogen or estrogen plus a progestin can also be applied to the skin.

Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)

SERMs (such as raloxifene and tamoxifen) function like estrogen in some ways but reverse the effects of estrogen in other ways. Raloxifene is used to treat osteoporosis and prevent breast cancer. Tamoxifen is used to treat breast cancer. A relatively new SERM, ospemifene, can be used to relieve vaginal dryness.

When women take a SERM, they may experience hot flashes temporarily.

Bazedoxifene is a SERM that is given with estrogen in a combination tablet. It can relieve hot flashes and symptoms of vaginal atrophy. Like estrogen , this drug increases the risk of blood clots in the legs and lungs, but it may reduce the risk of endometrial cancer and affect the breast less.

More Information

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Drugs Mentioned In This Article

  • Generic Name
    Select Brand Names
  • CRINONE
  • ZOLOFT
  • PROVERA
  • NEURONTIN
  • LEVOPHED
  • EFFEXOR XR
  • PAXIL
  • PROZAC, SARAFEM
  • ESTRADERM, ESTROGEL, VIVELLE
  • EVISTA
  • NOLVADEX

* This is the Consumer Version. *