The transition from perimenopause to menopause is a perfectly natural part of life for roughly half the population. However, there’s still stigma surrounding it. This leaves the door wide open for misunderstanding and unnecessary worry.

Get the truth behind these common misconceptions about menopause, plus learn some facts about the transition.

It’s normal for the transition to start in midlife, but it can happen earlier or later.

Menopause means you haven’t had a period in 12 months. But the changes leading up to menopause, known as perimenopause, start much earlier. Perimenopause usually begins between the ages of 45 and 55, though it can start even earlier.

In the United States, menopause tends to happen between ages 51 and 52, but:

  • about 5% of women experience menopause between the ages of 40 and 45
  • about 1% of women experience menopause before age 40

A 2014 analysis of 46 studies across 24 countries found that the average age of natural menopause was 48.8 years.

The research also suggests that the age of menopause varies among different regions, countries, and ethnic groups. Factors that may play a role in these differences are:

  • genetic variations
  • socioeconomic position
  • environment
  • reproductive and early childhood factors

Additional lifestyle factors may affect the timing of menopause as well, including:

  • smoking
  • education, occupation, and income
  • level of physical activity and body mass index (BMI)

Few people experience menopause the same way. Not everyone has the same symptoms or the same level of severity.

Perimenopause may start earlier and last longer for Women of Color than for non-Latina white women. Some research suggested that Latina women and non-Latina Black women had more frequent hot flashes, sleep disturbances, and depression, while non-Latina Asian women were more likely to report decreased sex drive.

Factors that may influence how you experience menopause include:

  • personal beliefs
  • cultural norms
  • income level
  • discrimination
  • general environment

For most women, the menopause transition goes on for years. Perimenopause starts when the ovaries lower the production of estrogen and progesterone. The rate at which this happens varies a lot from person to person.

Perimenopause typically lasts about 7 years, but for some, it can go on twice that long.

Most people who go through menopause tend to experience mild to moderate symptoms. Even for those who experience more uncomfortable, disruptive symptoms, menopause can be incredibly freeing when you consider certain aspects of it:

  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) becomes a thing of the past.
  • There are no more periods, period products, or anything having to do with menstrual cycles.
  • You can say goodbye to concerns of unplanned pregnancy or the need for birth control. (However, if you’re not monogamous, you’ll still need protection from STIs.)

Menopause doesn’t automatically end your sex drive. You can still have a fulfilling sex life. For some, freedom from periods and birth control can feel liberating and downright sexy.

Lower hormone levels in perimenopause and menopause can impact your sex drive. But that’s not the case for everyone.

Certain menopause symptoms, like vaginal dryness, can also make sex uncomfortable or even painful.

It’s OK if you’re not interested in sex. However, you don’t have to give up on sex if you don’t want to. Here are a few things that can help:

  • Use vaginal moisturizers to ease dryness.
  • Use lubricants to take the pain out of intercourse.
  • Have more sex, which helps increase blood flow, which in turn keeps vaginal tissues healthy.
  • Highlight foreplay, as getting fully aroused also increases natural moisture.
  • Try new positions to find your comfort zone.
  • Do pelvic floor exercises to strengthen muscles and improve blood flow to the area.
  • Avoid irritating products such as strong or fragranced soaps.
  • Talk with your doctor about prescription-strength medications or hormone replacement therapies that may help make sex more comfortable.

Plenty of strategies can help with uncomfortable vasomotor symptoms (VMS) of menopause like night sweats and hot flashes.

A hot flash sends a rush of heat to your face and upper body. It can last a couple of seconds or several minutes, and it can be very unsettling. You may also end up with night sweats that can disrupt sleep.

Some people are able to ride out the occasional hot flash. However, when symptoms are intense or all too frequent, it becomes a bigger problem. Here are a few strategies that may help:

  • Avoid triggers such as spicy foods, alcohol, and hot beverages like coffee and tea.
  • Dress in layers so that it’s easier to cool off when you feel a flash coming on.
  • Drink cold water at the start of a hot flash. Keep a thermos of ice water next to your bed during the night and keep a stash of ice packs ready to go in the freezer.
  • Choose breathable fabrics for bedding and pajamas.

You can also speak with your provider about treatment options such as:

  • Hormone therapy, either estrogen alone or with progesterone. These may be available as a pill, skin patches, and vaginal creams.
  • Nonhormonal medications that help address hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep.

Menopause is a major life transition, but it doesn’t make you old. If you think about age in numbers, menopause can start in your 30s. So it’s definitely not an old-age indicator.

Menopause is simply a new phase in life. Like every other phase you’ve been through, it can be unpredictable and potentially rewarding.

The transition to menopause can take many years. However, it doesn’t necessarily kill your sex life, sentence you to a life of night sweats and no sleep, or make you old. It’s time to put these misconceptions to rest.

Menopause doesn’t always require treatment. But if symptoms are interfering with your life, you’re not obligated to grin and bear it. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor and ask about treatment options that can help improve your quality of life.