How to manage the menopause
The menopause is a natural process which all women go through as they get older. As oestrogen levels start to drop, periods become less frequent and eventually stop altogether. For some women their periods stop quickly, but for others it can take a few months or a few years. Everyone is different.
Menopause symptoms usually begin between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age for women in the UK being 51. Although going through the menopause before 40 is unusual, it does happen, and affects around one in 100 women.
Symptoms of the menopause
Most women will experience some menopausal symptoms. Common symptoms include:
• Irregular periods – a change in the normal pattern of your periods is usually the first sign of the menopause. Your periods may become unusually light or heavy, and their frequency may also change
• Hot flushes – short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, making your skin red and sweaty
• Night sweats – hot flushes that happen during the night
• Vaginal dryness – pain, itching or discomfort during sex
• Dry eyes – eye drops are a great way to soothe dry and itchy eyes at home
• Difficulty sleeping
• Mood swings or depression
• Low sex drive
• Memory and concentration problems
• Palpitations (unusually rapid or irregular heartbeat)
• Stiff joints and aching muscles
• Recurrent urinary tract infections, such as cystitis
• Dry, itchy skin
Menopausal symptoms can start months or even years before menstruation stops, and last for a few years after your last period.
Treatments for menopause symptoms
Symptoms of the menopause can feel overwhelming and hard to deal with, but there are ways to manage them. If your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, your GP may suggest lifestyle changes or offer treatments, including:
• Exercising regularly
• Eating a healthy and balanced diet
• Using vaginal oestrogen creams or lubricants to help vaginal dryness
• Cognitive behavioural therapy – talking therapy to help anxiety or low moods. Yoga or meditation may also help with this
• Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – implants, skin patches, tablets and gels that replace oestrogen to help ease symptoms
Women who have been through the menopause are at a greater risk of osteoporosis (weak bones) because of lower oestrogen levels. Exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sunlight, stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol can all help reduce your chance of developing the condition.
If you're experiencing hot flushes and night sweats, it may help to wear light clothing, keep your bedroom cool at night, take a cool shower, use a fan or have a cold drink. Trying to reduce your stress levels and avoid potential triggers (such as spicy food, caffeine and alcohol) may help you to better manage hot flushes and night sweats.
Many women choose to use HRT to help with their menopause symptoms, after discussing the benefits and risks with their GP. The two types of HRT are combined oestrogen and progestogen, and oestrogen-only HRT (often prescribed for women who’ve had their womb removed in a hysterectomy).
When to see your GP
If you're experiencing symptoms of the menopause before the age of 45, your GP can make a diagnosis, based on your symptoms, family history and blood tests. They’ll then be able to recommend ways for you to manage your symptoms or treatment.
If you're over 45 and have menopausal symptoms that are causing discomfort or distress, a visit to your GP can be reassuring. They can refer you to a menopause specialist if your symptoms don’t get better after treatment or if you’re unable to take HRT.
• If you’re experiencing menopausal symptoms and they’re causing discomfort or anxiety, speak with your GP. Make sure you also see your GP if you experience menopause symptoms before the age of 45
• Follow a healthy lifestyle by eating a varied and balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, stopping smoking if you smoke and limiting your alcohol intake
• A number of treatments are available to help treat menopause symptoms, the main one being hormone replacement therapy, but other options are also available for some symptoms