Mood swings, weight gain, night sweats, these are some things women associate with menopause. But how can you tell if it’s actually menopause or something more? And how can you relieve these uncomfortable symptoms? We talked to Valerie A. Omicioli, M.D., who cares for peri/postmenopausal women at Indiana University Health to get some smart answers.

What is menopause?

“Menopause is defined as 12 months in a row without a menstrual period,” says Dr. Omicioli. “The 2 to 5 years before a woman’s final menstrual period is referred to as perimenopause.” She explains that perimenopause can be associated with mood swings, night sweats or hot flashes. A woman’s menstrual cycles can become closer together or further apart, with changes in the duration of bleeding. “During this time of fluctuating hormone levels, primarily estrogen and progesterone, women can experience many of the symptoms that occur after their periods stop.”

Menopausal symptoms can mimic those of perimenopause and bring along additional symptoms including vaginal dryness, discomfort during intercourse, muscle or joint aches as well as a feeling of mental fogginess. “Approximately 20 to 25 percent of women have minimal to no symptoms, 50 percent have symptoms that are tolerable and 25 percent have severe symptoms that significantly impact their quality of life,” says Dr. Omicioli. Women with severe symptoms often suffer in silence, which is why seeking out an experienced menopause provider can help.

What’s more, she says, there are other medical conditions such as depression, thyroid disorders, stress and anxiety that can actually mimic some menopausal symptoms, so it’s wise to see your doctor to get the right diagnosis when you start to feel unwell.

What age does menopause begin in most women?

Dr. Omicioli notes that the normal age range for menopause is between the ages of 45 to 55, although a few women may be a bit younger or older. (Women under age 40 should be evaluated by a physician.) “And while there is some correlation between your mother’s or sister’s age at menopause in that if your mother or sister had early or late menopause you have an increased likelihood of following that pattern, it’s by no means a reliable predictor of your own menopause,” she says.

Getting relief from the symptoms

There are a variety of ways to help with the night sweats and hot flashes, says Dr. Omicioli, including dressing in layers (a sweater over a sleeveless shirt or tank top); wearing breathable fabrics such as cotton; sleeping in the nude; having a fan in the bedroom or at work; and avoiding alcohol or spicy foods. For vaginal dryness, she recommends using an over the counter vaginal lubricant. “There are a variety of natural remedies— such as yoga, mindfulness, hypnosis and regular exercise to elevate mood—which are effective in reducing symptoms in about one third of women.” She warns that while many products are marketed for menopausal symptom relief, there are safety concerns as well as a lack of good evidence that they are beneficial, so be sure to discuss options with your health care provider.

When should you see a doctor?

“When symptoms begin having a negative impact on your quality of life, women should seek medical attention,” says Dr. Omicioli. She explains that there are a variety of prescription medications both hormonal and non-hormonal that can treat menopausal symptoms. “Talking to your doctor or certified menopause practitioner can help clarify your personal risks and outline the benefits of treatment.  One size does not fit all when it comes to treating menopause.”