It occurs when a woman stops having periods and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally.
In the years leading up to this point, women may notice changes in their monthly cycle, with periods becoming less frequent over a few months or years before they stop altogether. Although for some, periods can just stop suddenly.
When does the menopause start?
The menopausal transition usually occurs between the age of 45 and 55, as a woman’s oestrogen levels decline.
The average age for a woman to reach menopause in the UK is 51, but around 1 in 100 women can experience it before the age of 40. This is known as premature menopause which can occur if a woman’s ovaries stop making normal levels of certain hormones, or it may be a result of radiotherapy or chemotherapy cancer treatment.
What are the symptoms?
Menopausal symptoms can start months, or even years in some cases, before your periods stop.
About 8 in every 10 women will still experience symptoms for some time after their last period.
This can last for around four years, although some women can still get symptoms for much longer.
The effects of menopause will differ from person to person, with some only having mild effects while for others, symptoms may be more severe and cause an impact on everyday activities.
The most common symptoms include:
- hot flushes - short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, which can cause the skin to turn red and sweaty
- night sweats
- difficulty sleeping
- reduced sex drive (libido
- problems with memory and concentration
- vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex
- low mood or anxiety
- palpitations - your heart may feel like it’s pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly
- joint stiffness, aches and pains
- reduced muscle mass
- recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
The menopause can also increase the risk of developing certain other problems, such as weak bones (osteoporosis).
When should I see my GP?
It is advised that you speak to your GP if you any symptoms are troubling you, or if symptoms have started before the age of 45.
A doctor will usually confirm whether you are menopausal based on your symptoms, but for those uner 45, a blood test may be carried out to measure your hormone levels.
Are there any treatments?
There are a few treatment options available to help manage the symptoms of menopause, with the main being hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
HRT replaces the hormones that the body is missing, such as oestrogen, and is available as tablets, skin patches, gels and or implants.
Some types of HRT can increase your risk of developing breast cancer, but the benefits of the treatments are generally believed to outweigh the risks.
It is advised that women speak to a GP before taking HRT to discuss any concerns.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also help with low mood and anxiety, while eating a healthy diet and regular exercise should help to improve symptoms.
Your GP may refer you to a menopause specialist if your symptoms do not improve after trying treatment or if you unable to take HRT.
Why is there a HRT treatment shortage?
HRT is used by an estimated one million women in the UK to help relieve menopause symptoms, but supply issues are currently causing shortages of the medicine.
The shortages have reportedly caused women to travel hundreds of miles in search of it or to share the medication of others.
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the issue was causing “distress” to many women and stressed the importance of resolving the issue “as quickly as possible”.
He said: “While we appreciate the seriousness of the current situation and the frustrations women are experiencing, we urge them not to share HRT medication as this could lead to serious side-effects.”
He also said the college was “hearing that the supply issue is specific to England”.
It comes after the the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) called on Health Secretary Sajid Javid to allow pharmacists to dispense substitute versions of prescription medicines.
Claire Anderson, the president of RPS, told The Guardian that current laws in England stipulate that community pharmacists must provide the exact product and amount of medication on the prescription.
If the type of HRT product is not available, a substitute cannot be given out without consulting the GP who prescribed the medicine.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid previously announced his intention to appoint an HRT tsar.
Recent figures suggest the number of HRT prescriptions in the UK has more than doubled in the last five years but stocks are running low, with one manufacturer of a commonly-used hormone replacement gel reporting supply problems.
Mr Javid told The Mail on Sunday he was “determined” to make sure supplies were meeting the high demand and would use lessons learned during the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.