Premature ovarian failure (POF) is when a woman stops menstruating, or having her period, before the age of 40. In POF, the ovaries may stop functioning completely and menstruation will be absent, or the ovaries will remain partially functional and menstruation will occur less frequently.
POF can be caused by follicular depletion or follicle dysfunction. A follicle is a small fluid-filled sac located in the ovaries that contains an egg. One egg is released from its follicle each month during ovulation. Follicle depletion occurs when there are no more follicles left in one or both of the ovaries, and thus ovulation does not occur. This can be the result of a genetic condition or damage to the eggs caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Follicle dysfunction can be caused by damage to the ovaries such as from the immune system as well as other causes.
Ovarian failure can occur as slowly as over the course of several years, or as quickly as over the course of a few months. An affected woman will typically begin skipping periods, with widening gaps of time between periods until they stop altogether. Symptoms of menopause, such as vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and mood swings, are often experienced. POF is also associated with infertility and increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease.
While there is currently no way to reverse POF, there are several treatment options including estrogen therapy that can help with the symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with POF, talk to your doctor about the most current treatment options. In addition, a genetic counselor can help discuss inheritance and risks to other family members. Support groups are a great source of information and can connect you with other women living with POF.