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Menopause: What it is, What to do


WebMD Feature

Every woman knows that if she lives long enough, she will go through menopause, the "change of life." But what is it? What should we expect, and when should we expect it? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to make this transition as physically and emotionally comfortable as possible?

What Is Menopause?

The word menopause comes from the Greek and Latin words for "moon" and "stop," and refers to the ending of a woman's menstrual cycle, viewed by some throughout history to be influenced by the moon. The moon may or may not affect our periods, but estrogen most certainly does.

As we age, our bodies begin to produce less estrogen, resulting in irregular or nonexistent menstruation. This can also occur after removal of the uterus and both ovaries and is then called a surgical menopause. Non-surgical menopause usually occurs around the age of 50, give or take five years. It is not impossible, however, for it to happen as early as age 35 or as late as age 60.

Signs of Menopause

You may experience only some of these symptoms, or even none at all.

  • Hot flashes (up to 20 times a day)
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Irregular, heavy or light menses
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Night sweats
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Nausea
  • Increased bladder infections
  • Palpitations

Health Risks and Replacement Therapy

Once it has been determined that your symptoms are those of menopause, you will want your physician's assistance to determine whether your newly lowered estrogen level will increase your risks for health problems such as osteoporosis or heart disease.

If it is determined that your risks are increased, you may wish to begin estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) or hormone replacement therapy (HRT). These treatments have their pros and cons, and should be discussed carefully with a health care provider before making a decision. You will want to take into consideration such things as age, race, family and personal health history. If you have had certain types of cancer or liver disease, for instance, you should not take estrogen.

Regular exercise and calcium supplements may prove to be a better way to prevent osteoporosis in some cases.

Coping with the Early Stages of Menopause

  • During the day, light-colored clothing made of natural fibers and/or clothing worn in layers can help lessen hot flashes.
  • A portable fan can provide additional comfort.
  • At night, caffeine and hot, spicy foods should be avoided.
  • Sleeping nude or in cotton pajamas can help reduce night sweat discomfort.
  • Vaginal lubricants may alleviate any vaginal discomfort or dryness you may experience during intercourse.
  • Support groups for women who have been or are going through menopause may be a comfort.

Other than dealing with the side effects of menopause, life should continue pretty much as it did before. Continue to use birth control if you do not wish to become pregnant until you have been assured by a doctor that you can no longer conceive.

Many women find that post-menopausal life (approximately one year after their last period) is liberating because there is no longer a need to be concerned about pregnancy or menstruation -- and there is more time to focus attention on new areas of health and well-being.

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