Frequently asked questions about hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone Replacement Therapy FAQs

What are the benefits of hormone therapy?

Estrogen remains the most effective treatment for relief of troublesome menopausal hot flashes and night sweats. It can also ease vaginal symptoms of menopause, such as dryness, itching, burning and discomfort with intercourse. Long-term hormone therapy for the prevention of postmenopausal conditions is no longer routinely recommended. But women who take estrogen for short-term relief of menopausal symptoms may gain some protection against the following conditions:

  • Osteoporosis. Studies show that hormone therapy can prevent the bone loss that occurs after menopause, which decreases the risk of osteoporosis-related hip fractures.

  • Colorectal cancer. Studies show that hormone therapy can decrease the risk of colorectal cancer.

  • Heart disease. Some data suggest that estrogen can decrease risk of heart disease when taken early in your postmenopausal years. A randomized, controlled clinical trial — the Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study (KEEPS) — exploring estrogen use and heart disease in younger postmenopausal women is under way, but it won't be completed for several years.

For women who undergo menopause naturally, estrogen is typically prescribed as part of a combination therapy of estrogen and progestin. This is because estrogen without progestin can increase the risk of uterine cancer. Women who undergo menopause as the result of a hysterectomy can take estrogen alone.

What are the risks of hormone therapy?

The Women's Health Initiative found that women taking the combination estrogen-progestin (Prempro) used in the study had an increased risk of developing certain serious conditions. According to the study, over one year, 10,000 women taking estrogen plus progestin compared with a placebo might experience:

  • Seven more cases of heart disease

  • Eight more cases of breast cancer

  • Eight more cases of stroke

  • 18 more cases of blood clots

Based on these numbers, the increased risk of disease to an individual woman is small. However, the overall risk to menopausal women as a group became a substantial public health concern. In addition, researchers found that women taking combination estrogen-progestin had an increase in abnormal mammograms. The higher number of false-positives — signs of possible breast cancer that ultimately prove inaccurate — was probably due to estrogen, which increases breast tissue density.

For women taking estrogen alone (Premarin), the WHI found no increased risk of breast cancer or heart disease. But researchers did find that over one year, 10,000 women taking estrogen compared with a placebo might experience 12 more cases of stroke and six more cases of blood clots in the legs, plus an increase in mammography abnormalities. This last point is important, because women who take estrogen or combination estrogen-progestin therapy may need more frequent mammograms and additional testing.

Who should consider hormone therapy?

Despite the inherent health risks, estrogen is still the gold standard for treating menopausal symptoms. For women who experience moderate to severe hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms, the benefits of short-term therapy outweigh the potential risks.

Data surrounding hormone replacement therapy can be scary and confusing. But the absolute risk to an individual woman taking hormone therapy is quite low — possibly low enough to be acceptable to you, depending on your symptoms. Talk with your doctor about your personal risks.

Who should avoid hormone therapy?

Women with breast cancer, heart disease or a history of blood clots should not take hormone therapy for relief of menopause symptoms. Women who don't suffer from menopause symptoms should not take hormone therapy for preventing memory loss or strokes. Instead, talk to your doctor about other medications you can take or lifestyle changes you can make for long-term protection from these conditions.

If you take hormone replacement therapy, how can you protect yourself from the added risks?

Recent analysis of the WHI data and other trials suggests that there are several ways to reduce the inherent risks of hormone therapy.

Talk to your doctor about these strategies:

  • Time it right. The risk of hormone therapy causing heart disease is not significantly raised in women under age 60. In fact, some studies suggest that estrogen may protect the heart when taken early in your menopausal years.

  • Minimize the amount of medication you take. Use the lowest effective dose for the shortest amount of time needed to treat symptoms. On the other hand, don't be scared to continue treatment as long as you have debilitating menopausal symptoms.

  • Find the best delivery method for you. You can take estrogen in the form of a pill, patch, gel, vaginal cream or slow-releasing suppository or ring that you place in your vagina. If you experience only isolated vaginal symptoms, estrogen in a vaginal cream, tablet or ring is usually a better choice than a pill or a skin patch. That's because estrogen applied directly to your vagina is more effective at a lower dose than is estrogen given in pill or skin patch form.

  • If you haven't had a hysterectomy and are using oral or skin patch hormone therapy, you will also need progestin, which is available in a pill, combination pill, vaginal gel, intrauterine device or combination skin patch. Your doctor can help you find the delivery method that offers the most benefits and convenience with the least risks and cost.

What can you do if you can't take hormone therapy?

Women shouldn't have to suffer through menopause. You may be able to manage your menopausal symptoms by making healthy lifestyle choices. In fact, your doctor may recommend that you change your exercise or eating habits before you try medication. If lifestyle changes aren't providing enough relief from bothersome symptoms, there are many medications besides hormone therapy to relieve discomfort.