Many women experience uncomfortable symptoms as they approach menopause. The hallmark symptom is the hot flash (also called the hot flush). This sudden feeling of intense warmth in your face and chest is followed by skin redness (flushing) and heavy sweating. Then it ends with a cold, clammy feeling. Some women may also have fast heartbeats (palpitations), a feeling of pressure in the head, dizziness, faintness or weakness.
A hot flash usually lasts from one to five minutes. Approximately 80 percent of women suffer from hot flashes before, during and after menopause. Hot flashes usually occur for two to five years before they taper off but can last longer. Some women may never have a hot flash, and some may have them for many years.
What is happening to me?
Until menopause, your ovaries release eggs during every menstrual cycle – this is called ovulation – and you can become pregnant. Your ovaries also make most of your body's estrogen. As you get older – usually as you approach age 45 to 50 – your ovaries gradually stop producing as much estrogen. This usually begins when women are in their mid-to-late 40s. When your estrogen levels fall low enough, menstrual periods stop. Menopause may also occur if you have had your ovaries surgically removed; or if they have been damaged by radiation or chemotherapy; or if you take medicine that lowers your estrogen levels.
Hot flashes that happen at night are called "night sweats," and it can feel as if they disrupt your entire life. They may wake you, and the cold feeling when they are finished may keep you awake.
Most women have their final menstrual period at about age 50 or 51. A woman has reached menopause when she has not had a menstrual period for 12 months in a row. Ovulation stops, and you will no longer be able to become pregnant.
What symptoms of menopause are most bothersome?
Many people call menopause the "change of life." As you start to enter menopause in your mid 40s, you may begin to notice hot flashes and other changes in your body. As estrogen levels fall, every woman experiences different symptoms. Some lucky women have no symptoms whatsoever, but others have troublesome symptoms. Some things that seem to make symptoms more severe include family history, having started your periods at a young age, smoking, poor diet, a higher body mass index than is ideal, lack of exercise and your ethnic heritgage (African-American women seem to have more hot flashes than others).
The most common symptoms of menopause are:
- Bladder problems
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
- Night sweats
- Severe tiredness
- Sleep problems
- Stiff painful joints
- Vaginal dryness
These symptoms may disappear within a few months, but sometimes they can persist for several years after the last menstrual period.
As women age, they're at increased risk of developing other health conditions – this is natural. It's at this time of life that some women develop heart disease, dryer skin and lack of interest in sex. These problems can be related to low estrogen levels. Low estrogen after menopause can also cause faster bone loss and increase your risk of developing osteoporosis ("brittle bones"). If you have any of these specific problems, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
Short of taking medicine, what can I do to deal with my symptoms?
The best approach to reducing menopause symptoms is to look at your lifestyle and make simple changes.
- Many women note that certain things bring on hot flashes or make them worse. These are called "triggers." Pay attention to what is happening before and during your hot flashes. Once you identify things that cause or contribute to your hot flashes, you can avoid them.
- You may find that hot drinks, hot or spicy foods, alcohol, caffeine, cigarette smoking, stress, hot weather or a warm room may trigger a hot flash.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces stress, decreases your risk for heart disease and diabetes, helps you preserve your bones and can help you get a better night's sleep.
- If you're overweight, try to shed a few pounds. Lighter women seem to have fewer symptoms.
- Stay as cool as you can. Dress in layers so that you can remove clothing quickly to cool off. Use a fan or air conditioner to keep the air around you cool.
- Use layered bedding, and throw off part or all of your covers when the night sweats begin. Keep cool water at your bedside to sip if you awaken during sleep, or get up and run cool water on the insides of your wrists.
- Learn to control your breathing. Practice taking slow, deep, rhythmic breaths.
- If you smoke or drink alcohol more than just socially, consider stopping.