Perimenopause and menopause are stages of the same process: the end of a woman’s reproductive years. However, they represent different phases within that process and thus can present with different symptoms and physiological changes.
Perimenopause is the transitional period leading up to menopause. It begins several years before menopause, when the ovaries gradually start to produce less estrogen. During the last 1-2 years of perimenopause, this decrease in estrogen accelerates. Symptoms during this phase can vary widely and may include irregular periods, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, mood swings, and vaginal dryness. There’s no specific test to diagnose perimenopause; instead, the diagnosis is often made based on a woman’s symptoms and changes in her menstrual periods.
Menopause is officially diagnosed when a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months and there are no other medical or physiological causes for this change. At this point, the ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and producing most of their estrogen. Common symptoms of menopause include those seen in perimenopause but may become more consistent.
While the primary way of diagnosing menopause is the absence of menstrual periods for 12 months, a healthcare provider may also order blood tests to measure levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and estradiol (a type of estrogen) to confirm the diagnosis. FSH levels increase and estradiol levels decrease as a woman reaches menopause.
It’s worth noting that these stages can overlap, and symptoms can vary widely among women. Some women might experience severe symptoms, while others may have few or no discomforts. Regardless of the severity, it’s always a good idea to discuss any concerns or symptoms with a healthcare provider, who can provide advice and potential treatments for managing symptoms.