Menopause, also known as the change of life, is when your periods stop. When a woman hasn’t had a period for 12 months, she is considered to have been through menopause.
It’s a natural event which happens to every woman. It occurs when your ovaries stop working and you stop producing the usual amount of the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. It is this change in hormone levels that causes the symptoms of menopause.
The average age for a woman to reach menopause is 51. But any time between 45 and 55 years old is considered normal. After menopause, you cannot conceive a baby anymore.
Women who have both ovaries removed will go through menopause earlier.
Many women find that their periods become lighter during menopause, although some may experience heavy bleeding. They may also experience an erratic pattern, which may last 2 to 5 years before periods stop completely (see ‘perimenopause’).
Most women have other symptoms. For some these will only be mild, but for others it is a distressing and difficult time.
The most common symptoms are hot flushes and night sweats — you suddenly feel overheated and can’t bear to wear so many clothes.
Other common problems are:
- trouble sleeping
- dry skin and hair
- weight gain
- vaginal dryness
- aches and pains
- needing to urinate more often
- not feeling good about yourself
Treatments for menopause
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the most common treatment for menopause symptoms. It reduces the symptoms of menopause by replacing oestrogen, which is normally produced by the ovaries. It can be used before, during and after menopause.
HRT generally helps ease the hot flushes and night sweats. It also may help prevent certain conditions such as colon cancer, macular degeneration and osteoporosis, but this will depend on the type of HRT you are prescribed. The protective effects wear off after you stop using HRT.
On the other hand, HRT may be linked with a slight increase in the risks of some medical conditions, such as:
- ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer
- breast cancer
- coronary heart disease
- venous thromboembolism
The risks depend on your age and how long you take the HRT. It is important to discuss the risks versus the benefits with your doctor.
If you decide to use HRT, you should take the lowest effective dose for only as long as required for your symptoms. Have regular reviews with your doctor and regularly review your reasons to continue (or not) with your doctor.
Living with menopause
There are many things you can do to help ease the symptoms of menopause, such as:
- avoiding caffeine, alcohol and spicy foods to help reduce hot flushes
- getting regular exercise, as this will help with feelings of low mood
- using water-based lubricants during intercourse, as this can help with symptoms of vaginal dryness
- reducing stress where possible
Remember that you can still get pregnant during menopause. So if you are going through menopause and don’t want to become pregnant, keep using contraception even after your last period — 1 year should be enough if you’re over 50, but 2 years is recommended if you’re under 50.
Menopause that happens earlier than the ‘expected’ age of around 50 years is called premature or early menopause.
Some medical conditions, such as autoimmune diseases and genetic conditions, can cause the menopause to happen much earlier, sometimes when a woman is in her twenties or — in extreme cases — in childhood. This is known as ‘premature ovarian failure’ (POF).
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about the menopause, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
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Last reviewed: September 2019