For some, the end of their monthly period is liberating. Others feel sadness about the closure of their childbearing years, which is more often than not accompanied by unpleasant menopause-related conditions such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and irregular heartbeats.

In a natural consequence of aging, a woman's ovaries produce less estrogen and progesterone. When this happens, the body is no longer able to become pregnant. Most women endure a phase—up to a year—of erratic periods until they eventually cease. The average age for a woman to have her last period is 51, according to the National Institutes of Health

These hormonal changes often bring on physical, and sometimes emotional, changes but the severity and type vary from woman to woman. The good news is they all eventually go away—usually within five years of the last menstrual cycle.

And there's more good news: There are effective treatments for almost all of those changes. If your symptoms are persistent and affect the quality of your life, discuss them with your doctor. He or she can suggest treatments, medication or lifestyle changes that can bring relief to the postmenopausal changes listed below.

Common Menopause-Induced Changes:

  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Night sweats (which can interfere with sleep)
  • Hot flashes (usually subside within the first one or two years)
  • Heart pounding or racing
  • Skin flushing

Less Common Menopause-Induced Changes:

  • Vaginal dryness (which can make intercourse painful)
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Vaginal infections
  • Urine leakage
  • Anxiety/depression
  • Forgetfulness
  • Joint aches and pains
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Thinning hair/growth of facial hair

Getting Relief

Some women mockingly refer to hot flashes as having their own "personal summer" but for others, it's no laughing matter. Though a hot flash lasts less than 10 minutes (some are a mere 30 seconds), the sudden rise in body temperature, reddening of the face and neck (which is more noticeable in fair-skinned women), perspiration, and the cold, clammy feeling that typically follows an episode can be embarrassing and hard to tolerate.

Most hot flashes stop on their own over time but for severe cases, lifestyle changes, nonprescription remedies and prescription medications can reduce or eliminate them completely:

  • Systemic estrogen therapy is the only FDA-approved medication for treating hot flashes, according to the North American Menopause Society.
  • Estrogen and sometimes progesterone, known as hormone therapy (HT) or menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) can be used to treat hot flashes, severe night sweats, mood issues, or vaginal dryness. But there are risks associated with HT—breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots among them.
  • Antidepressants, a blood pressure medication called clonidine, and a seizure medicine known as Gabapentin do not contain hormones have also been used to reduce hot flashes.
  • Adding soy—which contains estrogen—to your diet can also help as well as steering clear of caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods.
  • Many women also report that exercises such as yoga and tai-chi give them relief. For an in-the-minute fix, the National Institutes on Aging recommends slow, deep breathing during a hot flash. Try taking six breaths a minute when you feel one coming on.

Health risks associated with menopause and what you can do about them

Research conducted recently through the Women's Health Initiative and the National Institute on Aging found that HT is not safe for women over 60. Your doctor will want to know your entire medical history before prescribing any type of HT. And be sure to ask about options that do not involve HT.

Menopausal women are also at increased risk of developing heart disease and osteoporosis as a result of the hormonal changes. Lower amounts of estrogen have been linked to higher cholesterol so your doctor may prescribe a medication to control it. Estrogen also helps maintain bone thickness which is the reason loss of bone mass is accelerated during menopause. As a result, bones may become more fragile and thus more susceptible to breaks and injuries. Calcium, vitamin D, exercise, and HT can slow bone loss.

Gout is a painful form of arthritis that can also be menopause-related. The big toe is typically the site of the first attack of gout but knees, elbows, wrists, and other body parts can also be affected. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids (prednisone, for example) are usually prescribed to treat gout.