HomeUnderstanding the menopauseHealth Hub
Womens Health

Understanding the menopause

Dr. Alexandra Phelan: General Practictioner | minute read

We’re taking a look at what is a significant period in a woman’s life, the symptoms and clearing up some of the common misconceptions that patients have regarding the menopause.

What is the menopause?

The menopause is when a woman stops having periods and can no longer get pregnant naturally. During the menopausal transition, the body’s production of oestrogen and progesterone, the two hormones made by the ovaries, varies greatly. During this period, the body begins to change how it uses its energy, fat cells change and women may gain weight easier than they normally would. Bones become less dense too, making women more vulnerable to fractures. As hormone levels drop, a succession of not only physical changes, but also emotional changes then follow.

It’s a natural part of the ageing process that typically happens to a woman when she is between 45 and 55 years of age, with the average age in the UK being 51. However, for some women it can cause a lot of discomfort and disruption to their everyday lives.

It’s important to remember that whilst many symptoms are the same in every woman that goes through this transition, the experience and severity of the symptoms will vary from woman to woman.

What are the symptoms of the menopause?

The symptoms of the menopause will usually start a few months or even years before periods stop. This is known as the perimenopause and it can continue for sometime after periods have stopped. The first sign of the menopause is typically a change to the normal patterns of your periods. For example, you may start having either unusually heavy or light periods. The frequency of your periods may also be affected as they could shift to every 2 – 3 weeks or you may not have them for months at a time. Approximately 8 out of 10 women will experience additional symptoms when going through the menopause:

  • Hot flushes – short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, which can make your skin red and sweaty

  • Night sweats – hot flushes that occur at night

  • Difficulty sleeping – this may make you feel tired and irritable during the day

  • A reduced sex drive (libido)

  • Problems with memory and concentration

  • Vaginal dryness and pain, itching or discomfort during sex

  • Headaches Mood changes, such as low mood or anxiety

  • Palpitations – heartbeats that suddenly become more noticeable

  • Joint stiffness, aches and pains

  • Reduced muscle mass

  • Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)

The menopause can also increase your risk of developing other conditions, such as weak bones (osteoporosis).

How long do menopause symptoms last?

The symptoms of menopause will last for 4 years after your last period, on average. However, for 1 in 10 women the symptoms can last up to 12 years. If you experience the menopause suddenly (perhaps as a result of being treated for cancer) then your symptoms may be worse. Speak to your GP if you’re presenting with the symptoms listed and they’re causing you discomfort, or if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and you’re below 45 years of age. They can usually confirm whether you’re going through menopause based on your symptoms, or through a blood test.

Can the menopause be treated?

Although there’s no ‘cure’ or medication to prevent this happening, there are lifestyle changes that can be made which can make going through this transition easier. These include staying clear of foods that cause hot flushes (e.g. coffee, tea, alcohol and spicy foods) and participating in regular exercise to relieve stress, which can trigger the release of endorphins and aid in the balancing of hormones. Another treatment is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) which involves taking medication that contains hormones (oestrogen and progestogen) that a woman’s body stops producing after menopause. HRT can be given in many different ways including tablets, patches, or vaginal creams or pessaries. In some cases Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may help with the anxiety and moods. It can be given in a variety of ways including tablets, patches, or vaginal creams or pessaries, many of which are available from our pharmacy shop.