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Low-dose topical estrogen may ease menopause's sexual symptoms with little risk

Though menopause happens to every woman, she might not be ready for the changes that come along with it -- especially when it comes to sex.

Menopause occurs, on average, around the age of 51 for women in the U.S. The ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone, menstrual periods stop and a woman can no longer get pregnant naturally.

The drop in estrogen frequently leads to unpleasant symptoms including hot flashes, trouble sleeping, vaginal and urinary problems, mood shifts and osteoporosis.

Women may also have to adjust to changes in their sex life. Libido often declines with age, as CBS News contributor Lee Woodruff addressed in a recent article for Ladies' Home Journal titled "Let's Talk About Sex (And Why I'd Rather Just Go To Sleep)" and in an interview with CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.

Furthermore, physical changes brought about by menopause can make intercourse painful for many women. During menopause, vaginal and genital tissue gets thinner, making it more prone to tears. Because of the lack of estrogen, women can also experience vaginal dryness and a loss of elasticity. These conditions can lead to painful sex, known as dyspareunia. The condition is so common that at least 40 percent of women will experience it at some point in their lifetime, especially during menopause, according to Dr. Lynne T. Schuster, a physician at Mayo Clinic's Women's Health Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

The good news is that many women can take a low-dose vaginal estrogen treatment to help address these issues, Dr. Cristina Matera, a reproductive endocrinologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in New York, told

These specific estrogen treatments can be delivered in three ways: tablets, creams or using a ring insert. The insert remains in the vagina for three months at a time as it slowly releases estrogen.

Many women are concerned about any treatment involving hormones because of studies linking certain types of hormone replacement therapies to serious side effects. The Women's Health Initiative studies, involving more than 161,000 postmenopausal women, have documented an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clots in the lungs or legs, breast cancer and dementia among women taking a combination of estrogen and progesterone. However, Matera explained, a low-dose vaginal estrogen treatment is different.

Matera said vaginal estrogen alone has not been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and is generally considered safe for women who do not have a history of breast cancer or special risk factors for the disease. Matera and LaPook stressed that it's important for any woman dealing with menopause symptoms to consult with her doctor about the possible risks and benefits of various treatment options in her individual case.

To learn more about menopause and vaginal estrogen treatments, watch the video above.

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