You're a woman nearing middle age. It's that time in your life when your periods are starting to stop and your body is going through changes. You may be starting to have hot flashes that you've heard about before. Could menopause be around the corner?

So, what is menopause?

Menopause typically happens to women somewhere around the ages of 45 to 55. During menopause, your ovaries stop making eggs and produce less estrogen and progesterone, hormones that play a vital role in pregnancy and how your body uses calcium and maintains healthy cholesterol levels, among other things. Changes in these hormones cause menopause symptoms. You will often begin having fewer periods, and eventually they stop.

Menopause is complete when you have not had a period for over a year. Women who are post-menopausal can no longer get pregnant without a donor egg.

Symptoms can vary from woman to woman. And these symptoms may last 5 or more years. Also, some women have worse symptoms than others.

The first thing you may notice is that your periods start to change. They might occur more often or less often. Some women get their period every 3 weeks during menopause. These changes may last several years before periods completely stop.

Other common symptoms include your heart pounding or racing, hot flashes, night sweats, skin flushing, and problems sleeping. You may have a decreased interest in sex, develop forgetfulness, have headaches, and suffer from mood swings, and have vaginal dryness and painful sexual intercourse.

Treatment for menopause depends on many things, including how bad your symptoms are, your overall health, and your preference. It may include lifestyle changes or hormone therapy.

Hormone therapy may help if you have severe hot flashes, night sweats, mood problems, or vaginal dryness. Hormone therapy is treatment with estrogen and, sometimes, progesterone. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of hormone therapy. Hormone therapy may increase your risk of developing breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. Topical hormone therapy has some of the benefits and fewer of the risks.

Your doctor can tell you about other options besides taking hormones, including antidepressants, a blood pressure medicine called clonidine, and Gabapentin, a seizure drug that can help reduce hot flashes.

Lifestyle changes may help in reducing your menopause symptoms, though it's not been proven. You might consider trying to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and certain spicy foods. Or to try eating soy foods and other legumes, because they contain fitoestrogens. You'll want to remember to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D in your food or supplements, and plenty of exercise especially during this time. Consider Kegel exercises every day to strengthen the muscles of the vagina and pelvis. Practice slow, deep breathing if you feel a hot flash coming on. Yoga, tai chi, or meditation may also helpful.

After menopause, you may be at risk for bone loss, higher cholesterol, and heart disease, so make sure you work with your doctor to manage or even prevent these problems.

Review Date: 2/26/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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