Menopause is the transition period in a woman's life when her ovaries stop producing eggs, her body produces less estrogen and progesterone, and menstruation becomes less frequent, eventually stopping altogether.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Menopause is a natural event that normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.
Once menopause is complete (called postmenopause) and you have not had a period for 1 year, you are no longer at risk of becoming pregnant.
The symptoms of menopause are caused by changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. The ovaries make less of these hormones over time. The specific symptoms and how significant (mild, moderate, or severe) they are varies from woman to woman.
A gradual decrease of estrogen generally allows your body to slowly adjust to the hormonal changes. Hot flashes and sweats are at their worst for the first 1 - 2 years after the last period. Menopause symptoms may last 5 or more years.
Estrogen levels may drop suddenly after some medical treatments, as is seen when the ovaries are removed surgically (called surgical menopause). Chemotherapy and anti-estrogen treatment for breast cancer are other examples. Symptoms can be more severe and start more suddenly in these circumstances.
As a result of the fall in hormone levels, changes occur in the entire female reproductive system. The vaginal walls become less elastic and thinner. The vagina becomes shorter. Lubricating secretions from the vagina become watery. The outside genital tissue thins. This is called atrophy of the labia.
Review Date: 09/11/2010
Reviewed By: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Redmond, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine.