How to tell if you're in perimenopause

The major milestones in a woman's life tend to arrive with drama. There's that first period, which sure knew how to make an entrance. You don't get more dramatic than pregnancy — between morning sickness, the ever-growing baby bump, and oh yeah, a 7-pound human hurtling its way out of your body. Menopause, meanwhile, which the average woman experiences at age 51, is notorious for its hot flashes; there's even been a Broadway play devoted to its mood-altering symptoms, so how's that for drama? But there's one phase of womanhood that is so subtle you might not even be aware it's happening to you: perimenopause, a transition between your childbearing years and the end of menstruation which can last for about four years (per WebMD).

The word perimenopause means "around menopause," and just like that vague definition, the experience itself can be very similar to the cycles you have when you're in the prime of your childbearing years — or, it can be very similar to menopause. The only way to know when it's over is when you haven't had a period for 12 straight months (via Mayo Clinic). "Some women have years of symptoms related to hormonal fluctuations, while others can be perimenopausal and never even realize it," Lauren F. Streicher, M.D., medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause in Chicago, told HealthCentral.

The most common signs of perimenopause

So if every woman experiences perimenopause differently, how will you know when it's happening to you? You might notice irregular periods, changes in your hair, headaches, forgetfulness, muscle aches, or weight gain — plus, your PMS may be worse than ever. "While it's not well-studied yet, I see many women who have an exaggeration of PMS symptoms during perimenopause," Dr. Streicher said. "Women will say things like, 'Suddenly before my period my breasts are tender, and I'm a lot moodier.'"

All of these fun symptoms are due to the body producing less estrogen than it did when you were younger (via Healthline). Some women also will get a preview of full-blown menopause before they're officially in this phase — night sweats, mood swings, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and dry skin. You don't have to just endure perimenopause, though. Talk to your doctor, because there are medications and herbal remedies that may help (via U.S. News & World Report). Exercise, getting more sleep, and over-the-counter products to help with the symptoms also may also give you some relief.