Hormone therapies are the prescription drugs used most often to treat hot flashes and genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM), which includes vaginal dryness, after menopause. For hot flashes, hormones are given in pills, patches, sprays, gels, or a vaginal ring that deliver hormones throughout the body—known as “systemic” therapy. For genitourinary symptoms, hormones are given in creams, pills, or rings that are inserted into the vagina. (An approved pill is also available to treat genitourinary symptoms that is not considered a hormone but does affect estrogen receptors, mostly in and around the vagina.)
Systemic hormones include estrogens—either the same or similar to the estrogens the body produces naturally—and progestogens, which include progesterone—the progestogen the body produces naturally—or a similar compound. Another approach to systemic hormone therapy is a pill that combines conjugated estrogens (those in the brand Premarin) and a compound known as a “SERM” (selective estrogen receptor modulator) that protects the uterus but is not a progestogen. Women who have had a hysterectomy (had their uterus or womb removed) can use estrogen alone to control their hot flashes. Women who still have a uterus or womb need to take a progestogen in addition to estrogen or the estrogen-SERM combination to protect against uterine cancer. Systemic hormones are very effective for hot flashes and have other benefits, such as protecting your bones. They also carry risks, such as blood clots and breast cancer. The breast cancer risk usually doesn’t rise until after about 5 years with estrogen-progestogen therapy or after 7 years with estrogen alone.
Vaginal estrogen therapy for GSM after menopause is administered in the vagina and is effective for both moisturizing and rebuilding tissue. Very little goes into blood circulation, so the risks are far lower.
You should discuss your individual risks and preferences with your healthcare team to determine whether hormone therapy or alternatives, including FDA-approved nonhormonal therapies, are right for you.