Menopause is when a woman stops having periods as she reaches the end of her natural reproductive life. This is not usually abrupt, but a gradual process during which women experience perimenopause before reaching postmenopause. The average age of menopause in the UK is 51. However, this varies widely and 1 in 100 women experience premature ovarian insufficiency (menopause occurring before the age of 40 years).

Oestrogen depletion associated with menopause causes irregular periods and has many other effects on the body. The most common symptoms are hot flushes and night sweats. Other symptoms include mood changes, memory and concentration loss, vaginal dryness, a lack of interest in sex, headaches, and joint and muscle stiffness. Quality of life may be severely affected.

Most women (8 out of 10) experience some symptoms, typically lasting about 4 years after the last period, but continuing for up to 12 years in about 10% of women. Prolonged lack of oestrogen affects the bones and cardiovascular system and postmenopausal women are at increased risk of a number of long-term conditions, such as osteoporosis.

Around a million women in the UK use treatment for their menopausal symptoms. The advice and support available is variable, and use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – a highly successful treatment for common symptoms of menopause – varies with socioeconomic and cultural factors. The number of prescriptions for HRT almost halved after the publication of 2 large studies: the Women's Health Initiative (2002) and the Million Women Study (2003). These studies focused on the use of HRT in chronic disease prevention and potential long-term risks rather than considering the benefits in terms of symptom relief. One of the aims of this NICE guideline was to clarify the balance of benefits and risks of HRT use for both women and their healthcare providers. Note that at the time of publication (November 2015), the MHRA is consulting with marketing authorisation holders on amending the existing warning about the risk of ovarian cancer in the Summary of Product Characteristics (SPC) information for HRT products. The current core SPC states that long‑term use of oestrogen‑only and combined oestrogen‑progestogen HRT has been associated with a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer.

This guideline addresses the diagnosis and management of menopause. It covers women in perimenopause and postmenopause, and the particular needs of women with premature ovarian insufficiency and women with hormone-sensitive cancer (for example, breast cancer). The guideline concentrates on the clinical management of menopause-related symptoms, considers both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical treatments, includes a health economic analysis, and reviews the benefits and adverse effects of HRT. It applies to all settings in which NHS services are provided.