Menopause is a normal and natural part of aging. As you enter your 40s, your body will likely begin to produce less estrogen until you no longer menstruate. Once you stop menstruating, you will have entered menopause. Natural menopause, which happens without medical intervention, occurs in three stages:
Many people confuse menopause with perimenopause. Perimenopause is the stage when a woman begins to transition into menopause. Some common symptoms of the perimenopausal phase include:
- hot flashes
- night sweats
- vaginal dryness
During perimenopause, your body begins to make less estrogen until the last one or two years until your hormone levels drop rapidly. Perimenopause can start up to 10 years before you enter menopause. It often begins in your 40s, but some women enter perimenopause in their 30s.
Doctors will diagnose you with menopause when you have not had a period for 12 consecutive months. After 12 months, you will enter the postmenopausal stage. If you’ve had your ovaries surgically removed, you’ll experience “sudden” menopause.
Perimenopausal symptoms can last four years on average. The symptoms associated with this phase will gradually ease during menopause and the years following called postmenopause. Women who’ve gone an entire year without a period are considered postmenopausal.
Hot flashes, also known as hot flushes, are a common symptom of perimenopause. One study found that moderate to severe hot flashes could continue past perimenopause and may last for a median of 10.2 years.
But some researchers say that exceeds the generally accepted timeframe. Researchers of the study also found that black women and women of average weight experience hot flashes for a longer period than white women and women who are considered overweight.
It’s possible for a woman to experience menopause before the age of 55. Early menopause occurs in women who go through menopause before they’re 45 years old. If you’re menopausal and are 40 years old or younger, it’s considered premature menopause.
Early or premature menopause can happen for many reasons. Some women can go through early or premature menopause because of surgical intervention, like a hysterectomy. It could also occur from damages to the ovaries caused by chemotherapy or other conditions and treatments.
You’ll experience a host of symptoms while going through perimenopause. The most common include:
Hot flashes: These cause you to feel a sudden rush of warmth in your face and upper body. They can last a few seconds to several minutes, or longer. Hot flashes can occur several times a day or a few times a month.
Night sweats: Hot flashes during sleep can result in night sweats. Night sweats can wake you up and make you feel extra tired during the day.
Cold flashes: You may experience chills, cold feet, and shivering after your body cools down from a hot flash.
Vaginal changes: Vaginal dryness, discomfort during sex, low libido, and an urgent need to urinate are symptoms of genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM).
Emotional changes: These may include mild depression, mood swings, and irritability.
Trouble sleeping: Sleep problems such as insomnia can occur because of night sweats.
Other symptoms of perimenopause can include:
- breast tenderness
- heavier or lighter periods
- worsening premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- dry skin, eyes, or mouth
Some women may also experience:
- racing heart
- muscle and joint pain
- focus and memory issues
- hair loss or thinning
- weight gain
If you experience any of these additional symptoms, visit your doctor to rule out other causes.
You can experience all of these symptoms throughout perimenopause. But hot flashes typically occur at the onset of perimenopause.
Going through perimenopause and menopause can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful for many women. But it’s a normal and manageable part of aging. Here are some tips to help you manage your symptoms:
To prevent and manage hot flashes:
- identify and avoid hot flash triggers like spicy foods or alcohol
- use a fan at work or at home
- take low-dose oral contraceptives if you still have your period
- take slow, deep breaths when a hot flash starts
- remove some layers of clothing when you feel a flash coming on
Vaginal dryness can be managed by using a water-based, over-the-counter (OTC) lubricant during sex or by an OTC vaginal moisturizer used every few days. Your doctor could also prescribe medication to help with more severe vaginal discomfort. But if you’re reluctant to engage in intercourse with your partner, see your doctor.
Sleep problems and mood swings
If you have sleep problems, you can:
- avoid large meals, smoking, coffee, or caffeine after noon
- avoid napping during the day
- avoid exercise or alcohol close to bedtime
- drink warm milk or warm caffeine-free tea before bed
- sleep in a dark, quiet, and cool room
- treat hot flashes to improve sleep
Easing stress, eating right, and staying physically active can help with any mood swings and sleeping problems. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to help with mood swings.
You should talk to your doctor about managing your symptoms and to rule out other conditions that may cause your symptoms, like depression or asthma. It’s also helpful to join a support group for women in menopause so you have a safe place to share your concerns and issues.