Menopause is a normal, natural event—not a disease.
Technically, you don't actually "hit" menopause until it's been one year since your final menstrual period. In the United States, that happens about age 51, on average. As women move beyond their childbearing years they may experience many physical changes.
Menopause isn't a one-size-fits-all event though. It affects each woman differently. Some women reach natural menopause with little to no trouble; others may experience symptoms that can hamper their lives. And when menopause starts suddenly as a result of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, the adjustment can be tough.
Fortunately, menopause is better understood and more openly discussed than ever before. Better treatment options are available, when needed. Many women report that once they’ve finished menopause they feel more confidant, stronger, and energized than they did before.
A woman is born with a finite number of eggs, which are stored in the ovaries. The ovaries also produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which regulate menstruation and ovulation. Menopause occurs when the ovaries no longer produce an egg every month and menstruation stops.
Menopause, when it occurs after the age of 40, is considered "natural" and is a normal part of aging. But, some women can experience menopause early, either as a result of a surgical intervention, such as hysterectomy, or damage to the ovaries, such as from chemotherapy. Menopause that occurs before the age of 40, regardless of the cause, is called premature menopause.
Natural menopause happens gradually. The ovaries don't abruptly stop; they slow down. The transition to menopause is called perimenopause. During perimenopause, it's still possible to get pregnant -- a woman's childbearing years are winding down, and although her periods may become more unpredictable, her ovaries are still functioning and she still may ovulate, though not necessarily on a monthly basis.
Here is a look at menopausal symptoms that many women experience, though the intensity can vary.
The signs and symptoms of menopause, however, often appear long before the one-year anniversary of your final period. They include:
When to see a doctor
It's important to see your doctor during the years leading up to menopause (perimenopause) and the years after menopause for preventive health care as well as care of medical conditions that may occur with aging. If you've skipped a period but aren't sure you've started menopause, you may want to see your doctor to determine whether you're pregnant. He or she may take a medical history, do a pelvic examination and, if appropriate, order a pregnancy test.
Always seek medical advice if you have bleeding from your vagina after menopause.
Many approaches have been promoted as aids in managing the symptoms of menopause, but there is very little scientific evidence to back up the claims. Be sure to consult your doctor before taking any herbal treatments or dietary supplements for signs and symptoms of menopause. Herbal products can interfere or interact with other medications you may be taking.
What are some concerns about sexual health after menopause? For one, less estrogen can lead to vaginal dryness, which may make intercourse uncomfortable or painful. Try using a water-soluble lubricant. Libido may also change, for better or worse, but many factors besides menopause -- including stress, medications, depression, poor sleep, and relationship problems -- affect sex drive. Talk to your doctor if sex problems occur -- don't settle for a so-so sex life. And remember, sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STD/STIs) don't end with menopause; safer sex still counts.
The loss of estrogen following menopause can lead to changes in a woman's sexual drive and functioning. Perimenopausal and postmenopausal women may notice that they are not as easily aroused, and may be less sensitive to touching and stroking -- which can result in decreased interest in sex. In addition, lower levels of estrogen can cause a decrease in blood supply to the vagina. This decreased blood flow can affect vaginal lubrication, causing the vagina to be too dry for comfortable intercourse. Don't forget to use lubricants.
No. In fact, some postmenopausal women report an increase in sex drive. This may be due to decreased anxiety associated with a fear of pregnancy. In addition, many postmenopausal women often have fewer child-rearing responsibilities, allowing them to relax and enjoy intimacy with their partners.
Vaginal dryness can be treated with water-soluble lubricants such as Astroglide® or K-Y Jelly®. Do not use non-water soluble lubricants such as Vaseline® because they can weaken latex (the material used to make condoms, which should continue to be used to avoid pregnancy until your healthcare provider verifies you are not producing eggs and to prevent contracting STDs/STIs).
Currently, there are not any good drugs to treat sexual problems in women. Estrogen replacement may work, but research has yielded conflicting results regarding its effectiveness. Estrogen can, however, make intercourse less painful by treating vaginal dryness. Researchers are also studying whether a combination of estrogen and the male hormones, called androgens, may be helpful in increasing sex drive in women.
Although sexual problems can be difficult to discuss, talk to your healthcare provider; there are options to consider, such as counseling. Your provider may refer you and your partner to a health professional who specializes in sexual dysfunction. The therapist may advise sexual counseling on an individual basis, with your partner or in a support group. This type of counseling can be very successful, even when it is done on a short-term basis.
Absolutely! Just as you must use protection if you do not want to become pregnant, you must also take measures to protect yourself against STDs/STIs. It's important to remember that your risk of contracting STDs/STIs is a possibility at any point in your life during which you are sexually active, and this risk does not go down with age.
Here are some basic steps that you can take to help protect yourself from STDs/STIs: