A Risk-Benefit Appraisal of Transdermal Estradiol Therapy

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Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) is very effective in relieving many menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, urogenital atrophy and psychological disturbances. Moreover, it is effective in the prevention of postmenopausal osteoporosis and has a favourable effect on some risk factors for cardiovascular disease in the long term, via several mechanisms including mediating effects on the lipid profile, Most of these beneficial effects are maintained with transdermal estradiol therapy, involving the use of a cutaneous delivery system attached to the skin which delivers a controlled rate of estradiol over a period of up to 4 days. However, the clear demonstration of a favourable effect on some risk factors for cardiovascular disease remains to be established.

Transdermal administration of estradiol appears to be at least as effective as oral conjugated estrogen therapy on most of the end-points which have been evaluated, but allows a lower dose to be used, avoiding some of the metabolic adverse effects experienced with oral treatment. Endocrinological adverse effects, such as breast tenderness, breakthrough bleeding and fluid retention, are similar in both treatments, and can be minimised by dose adjustments in most cases. The most common adverse effects related to transdermal therapy are local skin reactions at the site of application. These are usually mild and transient in nature, and can be overcome by changing the site of application. Serious risks of transdermal therapy appear to be the same as those for other forms of ERT, namely an increased risk of endometrial hyperplasia and cancer with estrogen therapy alone. However, combination therapy involving the sequential administration of a progestogen has been shown to substantially reduce the risk of endometrial proliferation. The potential increased risk of breast cancer has been controversial and appears to be minimal with ERT. The role of progestogens on breast cancer risk remains controversial, but the data to date do not indicate any significant change in risk when progestogens are added to ERT.

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