The ‘menopause’ literally means the last menstrual period. For most women, it occurs in the early 50s, but some women notice changes in their menstrual cycle for some years before this. The menopause is caused by a fall in the amount of the hormone oestrogen that is produced by the ovaries.
Many women have hot flushes (sometimes called ‘hot flashes’) around the menopause. These may begin a year or two before the last period. Usually, they occur for a year or two, but if you are unlucky they may persist for 10 years, or even longer. In fact, about a third of 60-year-old women are still having hot flushes (Lancet 2008;371(9614):760–70). Some women have them only occasionally, perhaps a few times a month, but most women experience them much more frequently, often many times a day.
If you have hot flushes, you know what they are like. Sometimes there is a slight feeling of faintness beforehand. Then your face, chest and back become burning hot, red and sweaty. This is more likely to happen if you are already anxious, such as in an important meeting or interview - which is just when you don’t want it to happen. Flushes can also be triggered by being in a hot environment, or by hot foods and drinks. Flushes are also common during the night - ‘night sweats’.
For advice on hot flushes, go to Flushing at the menopause.
Vaginal and sexual problems
Vaginal dryness is very common at the time of the menopause and afterwards. This means that sex can be very uncomfortable or painful. Use a lubricant, and ask your doctor about an oestrogen cream to apply to the vulval and vaginal area. It may take a month or two before it has an effect. For more advice on vaginal dryness, go to Dry vagina.
You may find that the menopause has no effect on your sexual feelings, or you may find you have less interest in sex, or perhaps more sexual desire than before. If a loss of sexual desire is bothering you, or causing problems in a relationship, talk to your doctor about it. A patch containing the hormone testosterone might help. However, there have been worries about a slight possible increase in breast cancer risk with this treatment; more research is needed (Med J Aust;2009:134–5). Also, it can cause some hairiness.
For more information on how ageing can affect sex, go to Sex and ageing.
If you tend to be affected by cystitis, you may find that the menopause has made it happen more often. Discuss a vaginal oestrogen cream with your doctor; this reduces urine infections. For advice about reducing bladder infections and discomfort caused by cystitis, go to Cystitis in women: preventing further attacks.
Skin and hair changes
Ageing skin. Several months after menopausal symptoms begin, many women report that their skin suddenly seems to have aged. The menopause triggers thinning of the skin; in fact, scientists say that skin loses 1.13% of its thickness each year after the menopause (Clin Interv Aging 2007;2:283–97). Skin also becomes dry and less elastic, wrinkles appear, and it eventually becomes fragile and bruises easily.
There is not much that you can do about these changes. Obviously, it is important to avoid sun exposure, and to use a moisturizer containing sunscreen. Be aware that your skin is more easily damaged than when you were younger, and look after it. For more advice on caring for older skin, go to Ageing skin.
Hair thinning. After the menopause, hair on the scalp becomes thinner. There are fewer active hair follicles, and each hair is finer. Shampoos and conditioners specially formulated for older hair are readily available, and worth using. For more information, go to Thinning of the hair.
Hairiness. Annoyingly, hair may become more obvious on other parts of the body (such as the face); for more information, go to Hairiness in women.
Dr Phil Hammond explores the menopausal symptoms that are hard to discuss in his embarrassing-busting guide After the menopause. He also explores the embarrassment surrounding body hair and sweating in his informative video guides.
Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Monday, November 12th 2012
Useful contacts for Menopause
Click to see all the contacts that you may find useful in relation to menopause
74 people have
tackled this problem!
Tell us your thoughts
Did you find what you were looking for?
Add a comment
Please note we cannot answer your questions directly. If you are concerned, please talk to your doctor.
Share your stories, tips and solutions here to help others tackle it, move on. As all comments are moderated, there will be a delay before your comment appears.