What are the signs and symptoms of menopause?
It is important to remember that each woman's experience is highly individual. Some women may experience few or no symptoms of menopause, while others experience multiple physical and psychological symptoms. The extent and severity of symptoms varies significantly among women. It is also important to remember that symptoms may come and go over an extended period for some women. This, too, is highly individual. These symptoms of menopause and perimenopause are discussed in detail below.
1. Irregular vaginal bleeding
Irregular vaginal bleeding may occur as a woman reaches menopause. Some women have minimal problems with abnormal bleeding during the prior time to menopause whereas others have unpredictable, excessive bleeding. Menstrual periods (menses) may occur more frequently (meaning the cycle shortens in duration), or they may get farther and farther apart (meaning the cycle lengthens in duration) before stopping. There is no "normal" pattern of bleeding during the perimenopause, and patterns vary from woman to woman. It is common for women in perimenopause to have a period after going for several months without one. There is also no set length of time it takes for a woman to complete the menopausal transition. A woman can have irregular periods for years prior to reaching menopause. It is important to remember that all women who develop irregular menses should be evaluated by their doctor to confirm that the irregular menses are due to perimenopause and not as a sign of another medical condition.
The menstrual abnormalities that begin in the perimenopause are also associated with a decrease in fertility, since ovulation has become irregular. However, women who are perimenopausal may still become pregnant until they have reached true menopause (the absence of periods for one year) and should still use contraception if they do not wish to become pregnant.
2. Hot flashes
Hot flashes are common among women undergoing menopause. A hot flash is a feeling of warmth that spreads over the body and is often most pronounced in the head and chest. A hot flash is sometimes associated with flushing and is sometimes followed by perspiration. Hot flashes usually last from 30 seconds to several minutes. Although the exact cause of hot flashes is not fully understood, hot flashes are likely due to a combination of hormonal and biochemical fluctuations brought on by declining estrogen levels.
There is currently no method to predict when hot flashes will begin and how long they will last. Hot flashes occur in up to 40% of regularly menstruating women in their forties, so they may begin before the menstrual irregularities characteristic of menopause even begin. About 80% of women will be finished having hot flashes after five years. Sometimes (in about 10% of women), hot flashes can last as long as 10 years. There is no way to predict when hot flashes will cease, though they tend to decrease in frequency over time. They may also wax and wane in their severity. The average woman who has hot flashes will have them for about five years.
Sometimes hot flashes are accompanied by night sweats (episodes of drenching sweats at nighttime). This may lead to awakening and difficulty falling asleep again, resulting in unrefreshing sleep and daytime tiredness.
3. Night sweats
Night sweats (episodes of drenching sweats at nighttime) sometimes accompany hot flashes. This may lead to awakening and difficulty falling asleep again, resulting in unrefreshing sleep and daytime tiredness.
4. Vaginal symptoms
Vaginal symptoms occur because the tissues lining the vagina becoming thinner, drier, and less elastic as estrogen levels fall. Symptoms may include vaginal dryness, itching, or irritation and/or pain with sexual intercourse (dyspareunia). The vaginal changes also lead to an increased risk of vaginal infections.
5. Urinary symptoms
The lining of the urethra (the transport tube leading from the bladder to discharge urine outside the body) also undergoes changes similar to the tissues of the vagina, and becomes drier, thinner, and less elastic with declining estrogen levels. This can lead to an increased risk of urinary tract infection, feeling the need to urinate more frequently, or leakage of urine (urinary incontinence). The incontinence can result from a strong, sudden urge to urinate or may occur during straining when coughing, laughing, or lifting heavy objects.
6. Emotional and cognitive symptoms
Women in perimenopause often report a variety of thinking (cognitive) and/or emotional symptoms, including fatigue, memory problems, irritability, and rapid changes in mood. It is difficult to determine exactly which behavioral symptoms are due directly to the hormonal changes of menopause. Research in this area has been difficult for many reasons.
Emotional and cognitive symptoms are so common that it is sometimes difficult in a given woman to know if they are due to menopause. The night sweats that may occur during perimenopause can also contribute to feelings of tiredness and fatigue, which can have an effect on mood and cognitive performance. Finally, many women may be experiencing other life changes during the time of perimenopause or after menopause, such as stressful life events, that may also cause emotional symptoms.
7. Other physical changes
Many women report some degree of weight gain along with menopause. The distribution of body fat may change, with body fat being deposited more in the waist and abdominal area than in the hips and thighs. Changes in skin texture, including wrinkles, may develop along with worsening of adult acne in those affected by this condition. Since the body continues to produce small levels of the male hormone testosterone, some women may experience some hair growth on the chin, upper lip, chest, or abdomen.