The number of patients being prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in England has increased by almost a third in a year from 1.8 million to 2.3 million, official figures show.
It follows menopause awareness campaigns by celebrities like Davina McCall and government action over a recent shortage of certain HRT drugs.
The figures suggest patients are now receiving a wider range of HRT.
That includes oestrogen gel which had been in short supply.
The NHS Business Service Authority (NHSBSA) – an arm’s length government body that gathered the data – says there is currently no shortage of any HRT medication.
What is the menopause?
Women going through the menopause, when periods stop, have a drop in their natural hormones which can cause symptoms such as low mood, sleeplessness, night sweats, anxiety and joint pain.
For some women, these symptoms can be distressing and affect their everyday lives.
HRT tops up the oestrogen levels in a woman’s body and can help alleviate these symptoms.
The latest figures were collected between April 2022 and March 2023 and show nearly 11 million items of HRT medication were prescribed in England, a rise of 47% on 2021-2022.
NHSBSA says this suggests new and current patients are being prescribed an increasing number and a wider range of items.
For example, in May, a restriction was placed on the drug utrogestan (a progesterone drug taken alongside oestrogen) because of short supply, meaning pharmacists were limited to prescribing two months’ worth of the drug to each patient.
Last year, pharmacists were given temporary power to substitute HRT drugs with similar medications amid ongoing shortages of several others.
Around the same time, the government appointed an HRT tsar to work with manufacturers and pharmacists to ease supply problems.
Uptake of HRT medicine for menopause symptom has been rising for several years, with more than double the number of patients using it in 2022-2023 compared with 2015-2016. However, the rise from 2021-2022 was particularly steep.
Dr Paula Briggs, a consultant in sexual and reproductive health at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, told the BBC the recent uptake had been “like an explosion”.
“I’ve been doing menopause for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this.”
Dr Briggs said she believed awareness campaigns such as those fronted by celebrities such as Davina McCall had helped people understand HRT was an option, but warned against “unrealistic expectations”.
“HRT is not a cure for genuine depression,” she said. “You can’t take HRT and not do any exercise and eat what you like and expect to lose weight.”
She added: “Everything is not going to be cured by the female population forever taking HRT”.
However, some campaigners believe more women would benefit from taking HRT if there was more help and information available to them.
Kay Bentick runs a support group for menopausal women in Ansley, Warwickshire, which she set up after suffering severe symptoms herself for seven years. She said she was not prescribed HRT for seven years, having complained about symptoms to her GP on many occasions.
“For some women it is life-changing. We’re talking about actually being able to drive to work without thinking about driving your car into a bus to end it all. It sounds dramatic but that’s what it will for some women. It’s a lifeline.”
A government spokesperson said: “Our flagship Women’s Health Strategy continues to break down barriers and improve health outcomes for women and girls.
“Over 400,000 women are now accessing cheaper hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescriptions and £25 million is being invested in women’s health hubs.”
There is now a new HRT hub on the NHS website where women can access information and advice on the menopause and HRT options.
In April, the government introduced HRT pre-payment certificates in England, entitling some patients to an annual supply of HRT for £19.30.
It covers all eligible HRT prescriptions for that period, no matter how many different medicines are needed.