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Hormone Replacement Therapy: An In-Depth Look at a Menopause Treatment Option

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is typically used to treat the symptoms of menopause for a very short time. But how exactly does it work, and when do you know it's the right choice for you? Here's a basic overview of HRT so you'll have better questions to ask your doctor at your next appointment.

What Is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

HRT (sometimes referred to as menopausal hormone therapy) is a treatment used for women experiencing the symptoms of menopause as their natural levels of estrogen and progesterone decline. With HRT, women are either prescribed estrogen or a combination of estrogen and progestin, a synthetic hormone similar to progesterone. This is because estrogen by itself may increase the risk of endometrial cancer. The therapy may be prescribed to help offset the short-term symptoms of menopause or long-term changes such as bone loss.

What Symptoms Might Show a Need for HRT?

Women going through menopause can experience symptoms including changes in their menstrual cycle, hot flashes, night sweats, and osteoporosis. For many women, these symptoms go away without treatment. But some women who experience more severe symptoms may choose hormone therapy. However, women who've had certain kinds of cancer, blood disease, heart attack, or stroke are advised not to use this therapy.

How Are the Hormones Taken?

Women have many options for how they can take hormones for their hormone replacement therapy. They're available in pill, cream, ring, gel, or skin patch form. FDA-approved versions are only available with a prescription, so you'll have to see your doctor before starting treatment.

Benefits and Risks of HRT

Hormone therapy for menopause can bring benefits, but as with almost any medical treatment, it's not without its risks. Some risks include a possible increase in the risk of heart disease, clots, and stroke. Benefits may include help with short-term menopause symptoms, fewer bone fractures, and a lower risk of certain kinds of cancer. The exact implications from the most recent HRT studies are still being determined.

One study, for example, showed that women taking both hormones only experienced the benefits as long as they maintained the therapy. Other studies have shown that risks for certain types of cancer may actually increase. For this reason, the FDA advises women to use hormone therapy only for the shortest time needed and at the lowest dose possible to control their symptoms. It's also important to check in with your doctor every three to six months about whether continued therapy is needed.

If you're concerned about the symptoms of menopause, talk to your doctor about the best treatment for you. Your doctor will know if any of your current medical conditions might preclude you from taking HRT, or if you should take it for a shorter period of time to avoid other side effects. You can also ask your doctor about other menopause treatments that may be available, such as a nonhormone treatment that helps with hot flashes.

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