It’s a health problem that affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age: polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Common signs and symptoms of this hormonal disorder are: acne, irregular periods, obesity, excess body hair and infertility.
Early control of symptoms can help reduce the health risks associated with this condition.
PCOS can increase the risk of problems during pregnancy for mother and baby. Women with PCOS have higher rates of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and Cesarean section (C-section).
Women with PCOS have a hormone imbalance that upsets the normal process of ovulation. Female egg cells do not fully mature and may remain as multiple (“poly”) cysts.
In addition to causing irregular menstrual cycles, PCOS can affect weight, skin and insulin levels. Symptoms can vary widely from woman to woman and may develop suddenly or over time.
PCOS affects between 6% to 12% of women of childbearing age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Women sometimes learn they have the condition when they have trouble getting pregnant.
“Having PCOS does not mean you can't get pregnant. Your doctor can talk with you about ways to help you ovulate and to raise your chance of getting pregnant,” says Christine Brody, MD, an OB-GYN at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas.
The exact cause of PCOS is not known. Several factors are believed to play a role, including genetics.
“The risk seems to be higher in women who have a mother or sister with PCOS,” says Dr. Brody.
Weight gain is a risk factor. Women who are obese are more likely to have PCOS.
Many women with PCOS have insulin resistance, especially those who have obesity and a family history of diabetes. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use carbohydrates for energy.
“Women who have a family history of Type 2 diabetes, which is related to the body’s inability to use insulin properly, may be more likely to develop PCOS,” Dr. Brody adds.
There isn’t a single test to diagnose PCOS. Several other conditions have similar symptoms, which is why it’s important to see your doctor if you think you might have PCOS.
“Your doctor will discuss your symptoms, take your medical history and do a physical examination,” Dr. Brody says.
A vaginal ultrasound exam can reveal whether ovaries have been enlarged by the growth of cysts.
Blood tests can check hormone levels to rule out insulin resistance or diabetes.
A blood test can check androgen levels. Androgen are male hormones that females also have. High androgen levels can stop eggs from being released and cause irregular periods, acne, thinning scalp hair and excess hair growth on the face and body.
Once other conditions are ruled out, a PCOS diagnosis may be made if the patient has at least two of these three symptoms:
- Cysts in the ovaries
- High levels of androgens
- Irregular or skipped periods.
There is no cure for PCOS, but various treatments are available to manage symptoms and prevent complications. Treatments depend on the stage of reproductive life. They can include lifestyle changes or medications to help control symptoms.
“The types of treatment for PCOS may depend on whether or not a woman plans to become pregnant,” Dr. Brody says.
“Women who plan to become pregnant in the future may take different kinds of medications,” she says. “If you don’t want to become pregnant, birth control pills can help regulate your menstrual cycles and reduce the level of male hormones that can cause acne and excess hair growth.”
Metformin, a medication used to treat type 2 diabetes, may help treat PCOS by regulating insulin and the menstrual cycle.
Healthy eating habits and regular physical activity can help relieve PCOS symptoms.
“Weight loss can help to lower your blood sugar level, improve the way your body uses insulin and help your hormones reach normal levels,” Dr. Brody says.