What Is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal condition that women can get during their childbearing years. It can affect your ability to have a child (your doctor will call it your fertility).
It can also:
- Stop your periods or make them hard to predict
- Cause acne and unwanted body and facial hair
- Raise your risk of other health problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure
You can get treatments for the symptoms. And you could be able to get pregnant, although you may need to take medicines to improve your fertility.
Some women with PCOS have cysts on their ovaries. That’s why it’s called “polycystic.” But the name is misleading because many women with PCOS don’t have cysts.
Hormones and PCOS
When you have PCOS, your reproductive hormones are out of balance. This can lead to problems with your ovaries, such as not having your period on time or not getting it.
Your body makes hormones to make different things happen. Some affect your menstrual cycle and are tied to your ability to have a baby. The hormones that play a role in PCOS include:
- Androgens. They’re often called male hormones, but women have them, too. Women with PCOS tend to have higher levels.
- Insulin. This hormone manages your blood sugar. If you have PCOS, your body might not react to insulin the way it should.
- Progesterone. With PCOS, your body may not have enough of this hormone. You might miss your periods for a long time or have trouble predicting when they’ll come.
Symptoms of PCOS
The most common PCOS symptoms are missed, irregular, infrequent, or prolonged periods. Excess androgens can cause hair loss, hair in places you don’t want it (like on your face), and acne. Other symptoms include:
- Darkened skin or excess skin (skin tags) on the neck or in the armpits
- Mood changes
- Pelvic pain
- Weight gain
Causes of PCOS
Doctors don’t know all of the reasons why some women get PCOS. You might be more likely to have PCOS if your sister or mother also has it. It could also be related to problems that make your body produce too much insulin, which can affect your ovaries and their ability to ovulate (or release eggs).
No single test can diagnose PCOS. Your doctor will start by asking about your symptoms and medical history and by doing a physical exam, and possibly a pelvic exam. They might give you blood tests to measure your hormone levels, blood sugar, and cholesterol. An ultrasound can check your ovaries for cysts, look for tumors, and measure the lining of your uterus.
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, your age, and whether you want to become pregnant. If you’re overweight, losing a little -- even 5% to 10% of your weight -- can make you feel better. It also might help the way your medications work and improve your fertility.
Your doctor may tell you to take the diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage) to lower insulin resistance, regulate ovulation, and help with weight loss.
If you aren’t planning to get pregnant, your doctor might prescribe hormonal birth control, like the skin patch or the pill. These medications can help lower your risk of endometrial cancer, get your periods on track, clear up acne, and lessen extra body hair. If you do want to get pregnant, fertility medications can help your ovaries release eggs. Ask your doctor about medications to treat body hair and acne.