What Is Menopause? And Other FAQs
Menopause marks the end of a womans fertile years. Learn when it can occur and what the telltale symptoms are.

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What Is Menopause? And Other FAQs

A woman's fertile years begin when she gets her first period. They end with menopause, when the periods stop. Menopause is a normal part of the aging process.

What is menopause?
At menopause, a woman's ovaries stop making enough estrogen to thicken the lining of the uterus. This lining is what is shed each month in the menstrual period. Women typically experience several changes before their periods stop for good. But menopause is considered over when a woman has not had a period for a year.

What are the stages of menopause?
Perimenopause
is the first stage of menopause, when the periods begin to change. They may become more or less frequent. There may be missed periods. Or they may be lighter or heavier. Also called the "menopausal transition," perimenopause can last for several months or years before her periods end. Changing levels of hormones cause the changes.

Menopause is complete when a woman has not had a period for 12 months.

Postmenopause is the time after menopause, lasting for the rest of a woman's life.

What are the symptoms?
In addition to changes in menstrual periods, common symptoms of menopause include:

  • Hot flashes. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat, usually in the upper chest and face, which can spread through the body. It typically lasts about two to four minutes, but can last longer. Hot flashes usually begin long before the last period. Most women who have them will experience them for about four years.
  • Night sweats. Hot flashes that happen during sleep are called night sweats. A woman may sweat through her clothes and wake up hot or cold.
  • Sleep problems. Night sweats can cause sleep interruptions. Even women who don't have night sweats can sleep poorly around menopause. That can lead to irritability and tiredness the next day.
  • Vaginal dryness. Lower levels of estrogen can cause the vaginal area to become dry. Sex may be painful. A water-based vaginal lubricant can help.
  • Mood changes. Being more moody or irritable is common for menopausal women. Scientists are not sure why. Stress, family changes, a history of depression or fatigue could contribute to the moodiness.

When does natural menopause occur?
The average age that a woman has her last period is 51. But this can vary by several years. Smoking can lead to early menopause.

What is induced menopause?
A woman who has surgery to remove her uterus and ovaries (a total hysterectomy) will become menopausal. Her periods will stop if only her ovaries are removed. Treatments for cancer, like chemotherapy or pelvic radiation, can damage the ovaries and bring periods to an end.

What is early menopause?
If a woman is age 40 or younger when her periods stop, she is in early menopause. Early menopause can be caused by chemotherapy, radiation therapy, genetics, problems in a woman's chromosomes or autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or thyroid disease. A woman whose periods stop before she is 40 should see her doctor. It may not be early menopause, but a treatable condition or pregnancy.

How do I know if I am going through early menopause?
Signs of early menopause are similar to those of menopause that come later in life. A doctor may do blood tests that measure hormones to confirm menopause.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer
Created on 05/02/2002
Updated on 02/11/2013
Sources:
  • UptoDate. Patient information: Menopause.
  • National Institute on Aging. Menopause.
  • Womenshealth.gov. Early menopause.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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