Menopause is often cryptically referred to as “the change of life.” But as lovely as this sounds, it doesn’t tell anyone a whole lot about menopause. After all, there are plenty of “changes to live” experienced by men and women of all ages that has nothing to do with menopause.

Menopause is something every woman with all her reproductive organs eventually experiences. Menopause is a natural part of the biological process. It is not a disease or illness although some menopause side effects can be unpleasant.

Some doctors claim that menopause is a process that can start in a woman in her 30s and last as late as her 60s. But menopause occurs in most women between the ages of 45 and 55. Menopause is officially the full stopping of menstrual periods for at least 12 months in a row.

Some of the signs and symptoms of menopause include the obvious, irregular periods. Unpredictability of periods is one of the first signs of menopause. Menstrual periods can suddenly vary between gradually getting lighter, then heavier, and then lighter again.

Another sign of menopause is decreased fertility. A menopausal woman does not ovulate and cannot get pregnant. But women in the menopause transition should still be cautious. Pregnancy in a woman who hasn’t completed menopause can still happen, especially if it’s only been a few months since her periods stopped. Remember, full menopause doesn’t occur until a woman’s menstrual periods have stopped for at least 12 months.

Menopause is caused by a woman’s estrogen levels decreasing. So a woman in menopause doesn’t produce enough estrogen to keep the vagina and urethra well lubricated. So menopause causes the vagina and urethra to become less elastic and drier, causing those areas to become itchier and more at risk for infections. Sex can also be more uncomfortable for women in menopause.

The drops in estrogen levels during menopause can also cause what’s called hot flashes. Hot flashes are often the butt of jokes, but can be quite bad for some women experiencing menopause. Hot flashes in menopause last at least 30 seconds to up to several minutes. They’re characterized by a flushed face and red blotches on chest, neck and arms. They can happen any time during the day or night.

Other symptoms and signs of menopause include an inability to sleep as well as a modest – usually five-pound – weight gain. Adult acne can get worse during menopause. Plus with decreased estrogen levels in menopause, the small amounts of testosterone every female produces takes over. Because of this, sometimes women in menopause can get coarse facial hair and coarse hair on the chest and stomach.

Menopause is a natural life transition. But sometimes complications in the process of menopause occur. For example, if a woman knows for sure she’s in menopause (that is she hasn’t had a period for at least 12 months in a row), and she’s bleeding from her vagina, she should go see a doctor.

If a woman thinks she’s in menopause, but isn’t sure, she can always go to a doctor. Depending on the situation, a doctor might take a blood test to determine menopause. In this case, a blood sample is usually tested for the level of estrogen and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). During menopause FSH levels increase as estrogen levels decrease. So higher levels of FSH and lower levels of estrogen will show a woman has gone into menopause.

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