What all women should know about the menopause, according to an expert
"Irish women can be a little more body shy than our European counterparts."
October 18 is World Menopause Day - a day for education around menopausal symptoms and an attempt to eradicate the taboo that still exists around the subject.
Despite being an experience that next to all women will go through in their lives, the menopause remains a source of embarrassment for many people. But not talking about it, or asking relevant questions, leads to not being prepared - an issue that women's healthcare professionals are currently tackling.
New research conducted by Besins Healthcare UK shows that only 40% of women in Ireland feel comfortable enough to discuss the menopause with their doctor, while 37% of women don't discuss their symptoms with anyone.
Of those who don't discuss their experience, 22% cited embarrassment as the main cause.
The menopause is something that almost 50% of the population will experience over the course of their lives. But while going through the menopause is normal, the menopause itself has not yet been normalised.
In order to do this, the first step is talking - for women nearing the menopause to have open and honest conversations about their symptoms, and for younger women to ask questions and know what to expect.
So, what should young women (and women of all ages) know about the menopause?
What are the symptoms of the menopause?
Most people are aware of the most common symptoms associated with the menopause.
Hot flushes, night sweats, sleeping problems, weight gain and mood changes are among those that most women expect to experience, but there is one incredibly common symptom that is not often spoken about: vaginal dryness.
New research has shown that 51% of women experience vaginal dryness during the menopause, a side effect that can lead to discomfort or pain during sex.
So, why aren't we talking about it?
Women's health specialist from the Irish College of General Practitioners Dr Deirdre Lundy says that the problem may not just lie with women's embarrassment, but consultations in general - especially due to the recent pressure GPs are under.
"Some Irish women - especially older women - may be more reticent to discuss genital complaints in general and of course that includes vaginal dryness in the menopause," she says.
"Irish women can be a little more body shy than our European counterparts, although this seems to be getting a little better with the younger generations.
"Another aspect may be that Irish doctors and nurses don’t always make the time to specifically ask patients about vaginal issues when discussing the menopause. There is a pressure on time in GP visits - nowadays more than ever - and unless a patient brings up vaginal dryness during the consultation, it may get overlooked."
The lower levels of oestrogen that cause vaginal dryness during menopause can also lead to other issues such as urinary tract infections and a burning sensational while urinating.
Why is the menopause still seen as a taboo subject?
Although the word 'menopause' has become a lot more frequently used and recognised in society, many women still find it difficult to discuss.
Dr Lundy says that much of this embarrassment comes from how the menopause used to be discussed in days gone by - largely as a joke, or not at all.
"The most you heard about menopause was in jokes about getting sweaty or growing facial hair, etc," she says. "This tended to trivialise menopausal symptoms which was grossly unfair.
"The menopause is anything but funny when you’re in the middle of it – going for months or years without a decent night’s sleep, feeling undermined by mood swings, anxiety, brain fog and of course the loss elasticity and moisture in the vagina.
"We women need to care for ourselves by doing some research, having a discussion with our healthcare professional, taking advice from reliable sources and then making decisions that are right for our needs. "
Dr Lundy added that in order to break the menopause taboo, it needs to be represented - accurately.
"I’d like to see more representation of the menopause in other areas of popular culture too," she says.
"Imagine a soap opera, sitcom or film plot that references menopause symptoms as well as the difficulties that so many women experience when they try to get help from healthcare providers. That might reach an even wider audience!
"People are starting to talk about vaginal dryness and HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and I think this is a huge step in the right direction.
"When we see women going through the same things that we’re going through it helps to destigmatise the changes of the menopause. This may help open the door to menopause conversations with friends, family and hopefully medical providers."
What can women do to manage the symptoms of menopause?
The menopause is inevitable, but there are certain things that can women can do to manage its effects and continue to live life to the fullest.
Although the menopause is the loss of reproductive hormones that effectively "shut down shop," this does not mean that women's lives need to stop. Some symptoms can last up to 12 years, while others - like vaginal dryness - will last forever.
In order to manage this, Dr Lundy says women should seek treatment as soon as possible.
'The longer a woman suffers without treatment the more difficult it is to reverse," she says. "While there are gels and lubricants available in pharmacies which can help, these are only treatments for short term relief.
"For long-term treatment of the condition, which is an extremely common issue, women should speak to their doctor or nurse who will be able to advise them on the best treatment.”
For other symptoms such as hot flushes and mood changes, dressing in layers will help cool hot flushes, and practising relaxation techniques such as deep breathing - as well as avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol - will help regulate moods.
Carrying out pelvic floor exercises will help strengthen muscles and improve forms of urinary incontinence, and eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly should help with any weight gain.