Anyone with ovaries and a uterus knows menopause is going to happen at some point. We know others — our mothers, aunts, or friends — who have gone through it. We know the symptoms. And yet, we still don’t know quite what to expect.
You might wonder: Does that hot flash I had last week mean I am now menopausal? Am I irritable because of menopause? Was my period lighter or did I miss it this month because I have started menopause? And even if it is obvious that the process has begun, you may not be sure what is normal or whether you need to seek out medical care. You might think you are making too much of the symptoms or worry that something is seriously wrong. Because women all experience menopause a little differently, it can feel like a mysterious part of life.
Menopause is a gradual process, said Padmavati Garvey, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist in Poughkeepsie, New York. In a telephone interview with HealthCentral, she explained that women, on average, enter menopause at the age of 51 years old. For several years before that, during a phase called perimenopause, you will probably have a hot flash, night sweat or mood swing once in a while. As menopause progresses, you will notice that the frequency and intensity of symptoms increase. But this is a process that takes place over years, not days or months.
Once the ovaries stop producing estrogen, women may start to experience other symptoms, including:
- Vaginal dryness
- Burning and irritation of the vagina, especially during sex
- Difficulty with urination or feeling like you need to urinate all the time
- Loss of libido
- Weight gain
Some women experience only mild discomfort. For others, the symptoms interfere with their quality of life — this is when you should speak with your doctor, Dr. Padmavati said.
“This is key. If symptoms start to interfere with your ability to work effectively, exercise or your daily functioning, it’s time to talk to your doctor. Every woman should feel she has the right to enjoy a good quality of life,” Dr. Padmavati said. “Women should not feel embarrassed talking to their doctors about menopausal symptoms.”
Erika D’Aquino, one of Dr. Padmavati’s patients, agreed. She suggested preparing before you go to the doctor’s office by making a list of symptoms and questions to bring with you. This preparation ensures you don’t forget any of your concerns and you can discuss each item on your list with your doctor. It also may help to keep a journal listing your symptoms, including the frequency and severity of each one.
Some additional questions you may want to ask your doctor about menopause include:
- What is the difference between perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause? What stage do you believe I am experiencing?
- When does menopause typically start, and how long does it usually last?
- What are the symptoms?
- What treatments are available? What are the side-effects and long-term effects of these treatments?
- How will menopause affect my sex life?
- Does menopause put me at risk of developing other health conditions? How can I minimize those risks?
- Are there lifestyle changes I can make to minimize my discomfort through perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause?
Learning what to expect and understanding the steps you can take to minimize the effect of your symptoms can help you feel more comfortable as you go through this stage of your life.