Doctor urges women to stop swapping HRT medication with strangers

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Women have been urged to stop swapping HRT medication amid shortages that have pushed the most desperate to accept drugs from strangers in car parks. 

Manufacturers have warned of shortages of some hormone replacement therapies (HRT) in England, including popular gels, patches and tablets.

The drugs can ease debilitating menopause symptoms, including hot flushes, night sweats and mood swings.

But surges in demand and Covid-related manufacturing delays have meant many women are struggling to get access.

And those who do have reported receiving HRT drugs that are not a perfect fit for them, which has led to women swapping prescriptions in car parks with strangers who they met online. 

But GPs said there is ‘frustration and angst’ among patients but warned women to speak to their doctor if they are unable to get their usual treatment because the therapies have to be safely prescribed.  

Dr Nighat Arif, Buckinghamshire-based GP, said: ‘Please do not swap bottles or buy bottles from somewhere that you don’t know.’ 

It comes after an investigation found some women are being charged up to £50 for HRT treatment on the black market amid or trading prescriptions on Facebook. 

An investigation has found that women suffering from the menopause are being forced to buy HRT on the black market amid shortages on the NHS (stock)

An investigation has found that women suffering from the menopause are being forced to buy HRT on the black market amid shortages on the NHS (stock)

Every year, roughly 1.5million women experience difficult menopausal symptoms, including anxiety, depression, ‘brain fog’ and memory problems that impact all areas of their lives.

WHAT IS THE MENOPAUSE? 

Menopause is when a woman stops having periods naturally and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally.

It is a normal part of ageing and usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55 when a woman’s levels of the sex hormone oestrogen drop. 

Eight in 10 women will experience menopausal symptoms including hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping, low mood or anxiety and problems with memory.

Women are advised to see their GP if their symptoms are difficult to manage.

Treatments doctors can provide include hormone replacement therapy, such as tablets, skin patches and gels that replace oestrogen. 

Source: NHS

HRT provides the body with oestrogen which it stops producing during the menopause. 

It is most commonly prescribed in the form of patches, pills or gels — but only a fraction of women with symptoms get treatment.

Manufacturers say shortages have been triggered by a surge in demand that they are struggling to keep up with.

The number of monthly HRT prescriptions has more than doubled in the last five years, with around 540,000 now written every month. 

Businesswoman Sharon Sinclair-Williams told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she was forced to turn to strangers on social media to secure supply of Oestrogel.

She was using the oestrogen replacement gel to manage severe depression and suicidal thoughts that had had been triggered by the menopause.

Ms Sinclair-Williams said her family know about her symptoms and it is ‘awful’ that they know she ‘just couldn’t see a way out of feeling so joyless’. 

She said: ‘What possessed me was that I just wasn’t going to do without the estrogel. I would literally have done anything to get my hands on it.’ 

Ms Sinclair-Williams went to a motorway car park in Middlesbrough to meet a woman she came into contact with via Instagram who had HRT gel and needed patches — something the businesswomen had. 

‘We said “is somebody going to come and tell us off?” Well, sue me. You’re going to have to grapple me to the floor to get it off me,’ she said.

This map reveals the top 10 best and worst areas in England for people to be prescribed hormone replacement therapy medications based on their entire population. Southport and Formby in Merseyside enjoyed the highest level in the country at 2.2 per cent whereas as Leicester City had the lowest at just 0.54 per cent

This map reveals the top 10 best and worst areas in England for people to be prescribed hormone replacement therapy medications based on their entire population. Southport and Formby in Merseyside enjoyed the highest level in the country at 2.2 per cent whereas as Leicester City had the lowest at just 0.54 per cent

Vicky Jackson, co-founder of Perimenopause Support UK, said she had to drive around pharmacies to get stick-on HRT patches.

She told the Today programme: ‘In the town where I live, I couldn’t get the medication at all.

IS THERE ANY RISK USING HRT FOR WOMEN GOING THROUGH MENOPAUSE? 

Menopause, which commonly strikes women in their late 40s and early 50s, can cause depression, hot flushes, headaches and night sweats. Long term, it can also cause bone disease and memory loss. 

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) tackles these symptoms by replacing the female sex hormones – oestrogen and progestogen – as the body stops producing them. 

But while it can transform the lives of many women, studies have shown that there may be an increased risk of breast cancer and heart disease from HRT. As a result, many women no longer accept HRT treatment and some doctors will not prescribe it.

It was however noted by the Woman’s Health Concern (WHC) that one of the American studies used women in their mid-sixties who were often overweight as subjects, and these are unrepresentative of women in the UK. 

Furthermore, a controlled trial from Denmark reported in 2012 has demonstrated that healthy women taking combined HRT for 10 years immediately after the menopause had a reduced risk of heart disease and of dying from heart disease, contradicting the reports of the earlier studies. 

The WHC says HRT is safe provided it is taken for the correct reasons, i.e. to alleviate the symptoms of the menopause, and at the minimum effective dose. 

Source: WHC 

‘I was worried that I was going to feel unwell like I had done prior to having this medication. 

‘I’ve considered leaving work because of the brain fog. I’ve considered that I’m getting early onset dementia, it’s massive, it’s absolutely huge.’ 

Besins Healthcare, a hormone replacement therapy manufacturer, warned of ‘extraordinary demand’ for Oestrogel in recent months that has resulted in short-term supply problems.

The company said it expects its product will be available locally in the coming weeks and said it has alternative gels and capsules that can be taken instead.

Gedeon Richter, which makes oestrogen-replacement spray Lenzetto, said ‘a period of unusually high demand’ meant smaller packs of its product weren’t available. 

Oestrogen tablets made by Bayer, patches made by Theramex and oestrogen and progesterone capsules made by Orion have also been affected by shortages.

The British Menopause Society said ‘ongoing challenges brought on by the Covid pandemic’ have also made it difficult for women to get hold of the hormone therapies.

It urged doctors to prescribe patients with alternative treatments.

Dr Nighat Arif, a GP in Buckinghamshire who specialises in women’s health, told BBC Breakfast: ‘I sense the frustration and I feel the frustration and angst that my patients have when I speak to them.’

She added: ‘But please do not swap bottles or buy bottles from somewhere that you don’t know. Speak to your GP for recurrent doses because these are medications that have to be prescribed safely and the doses have to be given safely.’ 

Menopause occurs when a woman stops having periods, meaning she is no longer able to get pregnant naturally.

The process — which is triggered by the ovaries producing less oestrogen — is a natural part of ageing and usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.

HRT is one way of treating the symptoms. It restores the levels of female hormones, bringing relief to hundreds of thousands of women each year.

Doctors warn some types of HRT can raise the risk of breast cancer, but insist that the benefits outweigh the risks. 

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