Young Woman

Polycystic ovary syndrome, also known as PCOS, is a long-term hormone condition that affects between 5% and 10% of women in the United States. It’s one of the most common reasons for female infertility. But PCOS can lead to a host of other health problems, so all women should know the symptoms.

This article provides an overview of PCOS, including early symptoms and risk factors.

Common Symptoms of PCOS

As its name suggests, PCOS often causes cysts to grow on your ovaries. However, not all women with PCOS have cysts. Other telltale symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Frequently skipped menstrual periods.
  • Cycles that last more than 35 days or less than 21 days.
  • Excess hair growth on your face or chin.
  • Thinning hair on your head, or male-pattern baldness.
  • Acne on your face, chest, or back.
  • Weight gain, or a hard time losing weight.
  • Dark areas on your skin, especially in folds on your neck, under your breasts, or your groin.
  • Skin tags (small pieces of excess skin) on your neck or armpits.
  • Higher than normal blood sugar or insulin levels.
  • Depression or moodiness.
  • Difficulty getting pregnant.

Some women have many of these symptoms, while others have only a few. Often, one of the first symptoms of PCOS is irregular periods. PCOS can start any time after puberty.

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What Causes PCOS?

Doctors aren’t sure what causes PCOS, but it might be hereditary. It seems to run in families, so you might be at higher risk if your mother had it. A reproductive hormone imbalance is the cause of most symptoms of PCOS.

Women with PCOS produce more androgens (male sex hormones) than they normally should. All women have some androgen hormones. But too much causes a woman to develop male traits — and PCOS symptoms — like excess hair growth or male-pattern baldness.

Higher levels of androgens can also disrupt ovulation and your menstrual cycle. If your ovaries can’t produce or release eggs, that causes infertility.

Insulin is another hormone that is frequently out of balance with PCOS. Insulin is essential to control your blood sugar, but it doesn’t work that way in some women with PCOS. Women with PCOS are often insulin resistant, meaning plenty of insulin is available, but it can’t do its job.

Insulin resistance makes it hard to manage blood sugar and weight. Because of this, women with PCOS are at higher risk of developing prediabetes or diabetes. And high levels of insulin can lead to even higher androgen levels, making other PCOS symptoms worse.

In addition, women with PCOS are often at higher risk of heart disease. That’s because higher levels of male hormones and insulin resistance can increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

How Is PCOS Diagnosed?

If you think you might have PCOS, talk to your doctor and schedule an exam. They’ll likely ask about your medical history and your family’s medical history. They’ll also do:

  • A physical exam to check your weight and blood pressure. They’ll also look for visible signs of PCOS, such as excess facial hair or thinning hair on your head.
  • Blood tests to check your levels of hormones and glucose metabolism.

Treating PCOS Symptoms

There is no cure for PCOS, and it doesn’t go away on its own. But the good news is that PCOS symptoms are treatable, usually with a combination of medicines and lifestyle changes such as exercise and healthy eating.

Medicines can help stimulate ovulation if you want to get pregnant. Sometimes women with PCOS take diabetes medicine to help balance their insulin and blood sugar levels. Other medicines can help reduce PCOS symptoms like excess hair growth or acne.

With the right approach and the help of your medical team, it’s possible to stay healthy and have a healthy pregnancy. And when your doctor diagnoses PCOS early, it’s much easier to take steps to reduce your risk of developing diabetes or heart disease.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office on Women's Health. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. LINK

Mac Pannill. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: An Overview. Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing eJournal. Medscape.LINK

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Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.