Menopause or Something Else? Here’s How to Know for Certain

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Everyone who has a menstrual cycle will eventually go through a process in which that cycle stops (otherwise known as menopause). Menopause can cause quite a bit of discomfort, with a wide range of symptoms caused by changes in hormone levels. Roughly 6,000 women enter menopause every day in the United States, 75 percent of which will experience some form of “menopausal distress,” according to a 2018 article in the AARP’s magazine.

Considering that the symptoms of menopause can be so varied and sometimes drastic (depending on the individual woman), the problem then becomes knowing whether the symptoms are really being caused by menopause and not something more serious. Check out the following tips to know for sure that what you’re experiencing is menopause.

Know the signs of menopause.

Early menopause or “premature menopause” happens when a woman suddenly enters menopause before the age of 40 (or early 40s). It’s often caused by things such as chemotherapy or surgeries such as a hysterectomy. The signs of early menopause can include hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings (including increased anger), fatigue, insomnia, brain fog, decreased or a lack of libido, weight gain, vaginal dryness, thinning hair, more frequent UTIs (urinary tract infections), and heart palpitations.

While this is a completely natural process, proper diagnosis is important because there are health risks during the menopausal transition such as heart disease and osteoporosis. According to a 2020 article in Harvard Health Publishing, the loss of estrogen that happens during menopause is associated with increased cholesterol levels, which over time can contribute to cardiovascular disease. The loss of bone density that happens during menopause increases your risk of osteoporosis as well.

Being aware of the differences between menopause and perimenopause is also helpful. Menopause is when a woman hasn’t had a menstrual period in 12 consecutive months, with symptoms associated with lowering estrogen levels that can be mild to severe and can go on basically forever. Perimenopause is the stage leading up to menopause in which a woman begins to experience some (or even all) of the symptoms of menopause along with irregular periods.

Enter your symptoms into a symptom checker.

While this is not an alternative for making an appointment with your healthcare provider, entering your symptoms, geographic area, medical history, and more into a medical symptom checker can give you a starting point for doing your own research. Whether it’s high blood pressure, abdominal pain, breast tenderness, night sweats, hot flashes, mood changes, urinary incontinence, or some other form of irritation, the symptom checker can tell you about the possible causes before seeing the doctor.

Be aware that the symptom checker will give you multiple possible causes for your symptoms. Regardless of the medical condition, it’s important to see a doctor for anything serious. For example, if it’s mild COVID-19, the flu, or a cold that comes up – you’re probably safer to stay home and recover while watching yourself for signs of needing to go to the hospital. However, something serious like cancer or even something manageable like thyroid disease, an autoimmune disease, or natural menopause should always be discussed with your doctor, as these conditions can get out of hand quickly without doctor advisement.

Get checked out by your health care provider.

A symptom checker, while information and very helpful, is meant to help you prepare for the doctor — not replace your doctor. Keeping your healthcare provider up to date on your menopause symptoms is vital to proper treatment of primary ovarian insufficiency, premature ovarian failure, dealing with the many possible symptoms of menopause and post-menopause, and all the possible consequences of less estrogen in your body.

Likely, your doctor will send you to gynecology to ensure any changes in menstrual bleeding are normal, take blood work, and go over your medical history (genetics plays a pretty big role in early menopause). Getting medical advice from your doctor is always the best way to handle going into menopause at an earlier age than expected.

Ways to Deal With the Symptoms of Menopause

Hot flashes and a dry vagina aren’t exactly fun. Your doctor can write you a prescription to make you more comfortable with treatment options such as hormone replacement therapy to help decrease discomfort and improve sexual function. According to The North American Menopause Society, hormone therapy is the most effective treatment for menopausal symptoms. Hormone therapy is relatively safe, although much like birth control pills, the use of estrogen and progesterone increases the risk of blood clots (although this is rare in women under 60).

There are also special lubricants and lifestyle changes that can make the whole process much easier.