You're breezing through your forties or fifties when, suddenly, you begin to spot changes to your body that you’ve not really noticed before.  Aches and pains, increased body temperature, and feeling a bit more emotional are all common in women at this age. While most will put these down as signs of the menopause or perimenopause, could they be symptoms of something else entirely?

The menopause comes with many symptoms, from well-known ones such as hot flushes to often unheard-of ones such as allergies. While experiencing some of these symptoms may point straight to the menopause, many may not be related at all. To help you understand your symptoms, and discover whether you might be menopausal, we’ve put together this guide, breaking down the telltale signs and symptoms of menopause.

Irregular periods

Irregular periods, or changes to your normal menstrual cycle pattern, are one of the most recognisable signs of the menopause.  As early as your forties, you may begin to notice changes to your flow, or that your period doesn't arrive when you expect it to. This can be quite disconcerting, especially if your period arrives unannounced at an inopportune time or place.

Experiencing a change in your periods isn’t necessarily a sign of the menopause alone. Several factors, such as stress and even pregnancy, could be the cause of a late or missed period. Evaluate what's going on in your life, as stressful projects, unusually heavy amounts of activity, or any other sudden changes might be affecting your periods. You could also take an over-the-counter pregnancy test to help you rule out that possibility. 

Conditions related to the womb and ovaries, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, cysts and fibroids can also have an impact on your menstrual cycle, so they're worth bringing up with your GP along with the menopause.

Hot flushes and increased body temperature 

Hot flushes (also called hot flashes) are thought to be the result of changing hormone levels affecting your body's temperature regulation. If you're not quite certain if what you're experiencing is a menopausal hot flush, there are certain characteristics you can look out for. They are quick to hit, often described by women who've had them as a sudden sensation of heat that spreads through the body. Often, the heat is concentrated in your head, neck and chest. The intensity of the heat may vary from person to person and could cause a flushed face, sweating, and even palpitations. You may begin having menopausal hot flushes a few months or years before your periods stop, and may continue to have them for some years after your last period. 

However, hot flushes can also be triggered by simple lifestyle factors such as stress or anxiety, a high intake of caffeine or alcohol, illnesses such as fever, or something as basic as eating too much spicy food. It’s a good idea to track the occurrence of hot flushes to decide whether they are caused by short-term lifestyle factors or actually linked to the menopause. If you'd like to do this digitally, a quick search online for women's health apps will give you many great ways to track your hot flushes, as well as any other symptoms. As uncomfortable as we know they can get, there are a number of ways to manage hot flushes effectively, but if they feel uncomfortably intense or persistent, you should consult your GP to help rule out any other underlying conditions.

Night sweats

We all sweat to some degree during the night, and may experience increased sweating due to seasonal temperature changes, a warm room or overly thick bedding. Experiencing night sweats, however, can leave you feeling uncomfortable in bed laying in damp nightwear and sheets — even if you're sleeping in a relatively cool atmosphere. While they may occur due to medications, low blood sugar levels, or even alcohol, if you're experiencing night sweats alongside other perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms, they’re most likely a sign of the menopause. You can try to track when they might happen and be prepared by going to bed in comfortable, moisture-wicking nightwear.

Vaginal dryness and low libido 

The truth is, women can experience vaginal dryness at any stage of life — it is, however, a particularly common symptom of the menopause and perimenopause. As your oestrogen levels drop, vaginal tissue can lose its natural lubrication and elasticity, causing you to feel dry, itchy or sore, and sometimes making intercourse uncomfortable or even painful. This dryness can leave you more vulnerable to urinary or vaginal infections, and discomfort and hormonal changes can cause a drop in libido.

The menopause or perimenopause may not be the only reason you're experiencing vaginal dryness. Other factors such as breastfeeding, contraceptive and antidepressant medications, overusing perfumed soaps, washes or vaginal douching products could be the cause. Dryness can also be a result of medical procedures around the vaginal region, such as a hysterectomy. There are many ways to naturally counter vaginal dryness, like dietary changes and hydration, although it's well worth consulting your GP if you begin to experience noticeable pain or discomfort.

 Anxiety and depression

It’s completely normal to feel a little more anxious or low during the early stages of the menopause due to imbalanced hormones.  While everyone feels anxious about something at some point in their life, too much or constant anxiety could leave you tired and unable to concentrate. It can cause psychological symptoms such as worry, fear, inability to relax, irritability and hopelessness, as well as physical symptoms such as exhaustion, an increased heart rate, headaches and nausea. 

Anxiety can be the result of many factors other than the menopause, including stressful work or home environments, but it can always be helped. If your anxiety is affecting your sleep or any other part of your day-to-day life, there are many ways to help yourself unwind, such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness techniques, and even talking to a therapist to get to the bottom of it. 

 Insomnia and trouble sleeping

It's difficult to pinpoint if trouble sleeping is caused by other menopausal symptoms (such as anxiety) or the cause of those symptoms, but it certainly contributes to making you feel off-kilter during the menopause. Symptoms such as night sweats and anxiety play a big part in your sleep problems, and the tiredness caused by lack of sleep in turn impacts mood. Just like these other symptoms, your insomnia may be connected to something other than the menopause, from mental health concerns such as stress to underlying conditions like obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which, according to the Sleep Apnoea Trust Association, affects 6% of adult women in the UK.

If poor sleep is negatively affecting your day-to-day life, there are some ways to overcome it. Try to combat your sleeping problems by creating a fresh and comfortable sleeping environment with cooling bedding and a quiet fan by your bed. 

 Poor memory and brain fog

Going through the menopause can really cloud your focus, leading to what some call “menopause brain”. The lapses in memory and difficulty concentrating experienced during the menopause are typically attributed to declining hormone levels, and they can have a significant impact on your work and personal life. It’s important to note that poor memory and brain fog may also be symptoms of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease—although these tend to have a genetic link and so could be ruled out by looking back through your family history. 

 Vigilance is key

It’s important to remember that, while menopause symptoms can bring their own set of challenges, there are a number of accessible ways to overcome them, both medically and naturally. Whether you think you may be experiencing the menopause, the early stages of perimenopause, or something different altogether, it’s always important to talk to your GP to get to the bottom of your symptoms and come up with solutions to manage them together.

To discover more comprehensive advice, just visit our Meno Guide—it's clear-cut, full of essential information and great resources to help you better navigate your journey through the menopause.

For more support and advice, head back to our dedicated menopause guide