Although adjusting to menopause can be difficult, it is a natural part of ageing that women are often prepared for. However, it can be a shock when it happens prematurely.
In a survey conducted by Health & Aesthetics, 34.3% of women said they didn’t know the difference between premature and early menopause, while a quarter confessed they weren’t aware of what either is.
The average age women go through ‘the change’ in the UK is 51 but according to research, one in 100 women experience it before the age of 40, which is known as premature menopause. And around 5% are affected by early menopause which occurs between the ages of 40 and 45.
Dr Rekha Tailor, founder and medical director of Health & Aesthetics, says: “Experiencing menopausal symptoms at a younger age than expected can put a strain on romantic relationships and disrupt everyday activities. But there are ways to manage the symptoms and cope with any distressing feelings.”
What causes premature and early menopause?
Menopause is when a woman’s ovaries stop producing eggs and periods cease. This can occur early or prematurely, which can even affect teenage girls and women in their early twenties and thirties.
This can be a result of primary ovarian insufficiency (POI), which is when periods spontaneously stop. However, unlike menopause, ovarian function may resume with POI.
Possible causes of premature or early menopause include:
- autoimmune disease
- genetic abnormality
- lifestyle, e.g. smoking
- family history.
However, the cause of premature and early menopause isn’t always known. It has been suggested that the cause cannot be identified in 60% of cases.
What are the symptoms?
Menopausal symptoms are very similar whether or not their onset is premature, but they can be more severe and unpredictable in cases of early menopause. Symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to:
- hot flushes
- vaginal dryness
- sleep problems
- night sweats
- loss of libido
- mood swings
- memory problems and reduced concentration.
The mental impact of premature menopause
Unexpected menopause can trigger some complicated emotions, such as feeling embarrassed for being the first among friends to experience it. Some women may feel like their youth has been taken away too soon or that their body isn’t cooperating with them.
Counsellor Beccy Stremes says: “I think it is important to realise that the physical symptoms are not always as obvious to others as it is to the person who is suffering from them. When you are having a hot flush any anxiety around it can make it worse.
“It’s important to try to relax through it. Recognise that the flush will pass and all will resume as normal again, usually within minutes. Take some deep breaths and be kind to yourself. Going through the menopause is a time where you need to give yourself extreme self-care.
“Try to focus on any positives about this process. Your body will be free from periods soon, which will bring a sense of freedom that you haven’t experienced before.”
Premature menopause can also cause body image problems, which may lead to low confidence and intimacy issues with romantic partners.
Beccy continues: “Talk to your partner about the impact menopause is having on you. Your body is going through a huge process and you will likely feel tired, more vulnerable and your self-esteem may feel lower. Being vulnerable with a partner can be hard but if they are understanding, you can work together as a team to get through it.”
What can help?
Although premature and early menopause isn’t reversible, there are ways to help ease the symptoms.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
HRT restores the hormones the ovaries are no longer producing. It can be prescribed as a combination of oestrogen and progestogen in the form of tablets, a skin patch or gels applied to the skin.
Oestrogen levels should be maintained to ward off osteoporosis and heart disease until at least the expected age of menopause. This treatment also works to ease most menopausal symptoms including vaginal dryness, hot flushes and night sweats.
However, HRT can cause several side effects, such as headaches, breast tenderness, vaginal bleeding and nausea. It can also increase the risk of blood clots, breast cancer, strokes and other serious conditions.
Dr Tailor adds: “Any concerns should be discussed with a medical professional. Not all treatments will be suited to everyone’s situation so it’s important to explore how severe your symptoms are and whether the possible side effects outweigh the potential results.”
Adjust your lifestyle
Menopausal women can help stay cool and fight off hot flushes and night sweats with cold showers, light clothing, fans and cold drinks. A healthy diet and regular exercise can also reduce these symptoms. Spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol and smoking should be avoided.
Lubricant and moisturisers
Vaginal dryness is a common side effect of menopause but many women avoid seeking medical help out of pure embarrassment. Dryness can cause irritation, discomfort and pain during sex.
“Women experiencing vaginal dryness at a young age because of premature menopause may feel embarrassed if they see it as a sign of getting older. But it can affect women of all ages, even before menopause. It isn’t anything to be ashamed of and shouldn’t be ignored,” Dr Tailor explains.
Applying lubricant and vaginal moisturisers to the vagina can provide temporary relief and make intercourse more comfortable.
The mental impact of premature menopause shouldn’t be neglected. To cope with this big life change, women can speak to a counsellor.
Beccy adds: “Premature menopause is unexpected and a shock for women. You may feel that something has been taken away from you and feeling unsure what your purpose is now that you are no longer able to conceive.
“Counselling gives you the chance to look a little deeper at what the changes of the menopause mean to you personally.”
Women struggling with premature menopause must seek help from medical and psychological professionals as there are many ways to ease symptoms and cope with complicated feelings.