Your Guide to Understanding PCOS

Learn more about PCOS and find out if your symptoms might be related to this syndrome.

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Polycystic ovarian syndrome, more commonly known as PCOS, is the most common cause of infertility among women in the U.S. But beyond posing problems to those hoping to get pregnant, PCOS also comes along with a number of unpleasant symptoms like acne or extra hair. Here’s what you need to know about PCOS, what symptoms to look for and what you can do if you think you might be affected.

What is PCOS?

While PCOS is extremely common, the cause of the syndrome remains unknown. It’s likely that a host of factors are collaborating to upend the normal balance of hormones in a woman’s body, which leads to changes in her period and unpleasant symptoms related to hormonal imbalance.

PCOS is a syndrome or list of symptoms that often come together, rather than a single disease. In fact, many doctors think that the symptoms of PCOS are actually caused by several diseases that happen to occur together. For example, diabetes and obesity appear to contribute to the symptoms of PCOS by changing the way the body handles hormones and the way those hormones act in the brain and on the reproductive organs. But there’s also some indication that genetics may play a role in making someone more or less likely to be sensitive to these kinds of hormonal shifts.

Who’s at risk for PCOS?

  • Some of the following factors appear to be related to PCOS and may increase your risk for the syndrome:
  • Having a family member who has or had PCOS
  • Having irregular periods
  • Having diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

The following symptoms are commonly seen in women who have PCOS:

  • Male patterns of hair, including facial hair, chest hair, belly hair, back hair and increased arm or leg hair.
  • Acne, especially acne that doesn’t seem to get better with normal skin treatments for acne.
  • Balding is less common, but can be seen either in a male pattern on the front of the head or closer to the center of the head.
  • Irregular periods that don’t follow a regular schedule. Some women with PCOS find their periods stop completely.
  • Ovaries that appear to have large cysts on them when imaged with an ultrasound machine.

It’s important to remember that not all women will have all of these symptoms. PCOS is often a variable syndrome and different women can have a different mix of associated problems.

Why should I worry about PCOS?

While PCOS can cause a number of unsightly or unpleasant symptoms, the real problem with the syndrome is much more serious. Women who develop PCOS appear to be at higher risk of several diseases that can threaten their health.

  • High risk of developing diabetes or becoming overweight in those with PCOS who aren’t already overweight or diabetic.
  • Risk of developing high cholesterol or high blood lipids, which can increase heart attack risk.
  • Risk of high blood pressure.
  • Increased risk of heart attack.
  • Higher rates of liver disease.
  • Higher rates of endometrial cancer, often because of irregular periods and hormonal imbalance.
  • Higher rates of miscarriage when pregnant.
  • Sleep apnea, which can cause sleep troubles and increased risk for some diseases.

All of these problems affect the health and well-being of women affected by PCOS and make it important to take action if you think you might have PCOS.

What can I do about PCOS?

PCOS is a diagnosis made in partnership with your doctor who will look through your symptoms and decide whether more tests or medical advice might be needed. But it’s important that you take the first step if you have some of the symptoms mentioned above and are concerned. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms, what might be causing them, and how they can be treated.

If you are diagnosed with PCOS, treatments are available. These treatments include:

  • Losing weight, exercising more often, and eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Better blood sugar control in diabetics, including certain drugs that may help with some PCOS symptoms while also controlling insulin levels.
  • Treatments to better regulate the body’s hormones, which may include different types of birth control pills.
  • Using lifestyle changes and medications to control disease risks like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  • Fertility treatments for women trying to get pregnant.

Your doctor will work with you to decide which treatment options best fit your health goals while safeguarding you against dangerous diseases.