Polycystic ovary syndrome (or PCOS) involves abnormal hormone levels that usually cause many small cysts to appear on the ovaries. It is thought that as many as 5-10% of women may suffer from this condition, but many do not know that it is the explanation for some of the health problems that they experience. Read on to discover the nine main warning signs that you should see a doctor to discuss whether you might have polycystic ovary syndrome, and learn what you may be able to do about each of these symptoms.
Approximately 70% of women with PCOS also struggle with acne to some extent. In some patients this just involves annoying but regular breakouts of small zits. However, some women suffer from persistent cystic acne as part of PCOS, and this can be particularly detrimental to self-esteem. Hormone therapy can sometimes help this symptom, and there are also other drugs (such as Accutane) that may be prescribed in extreme cases.
2) Difficulties controlling weight:
It is easier for women with PCOS to put on weight because they are resistant to insulin (i.e. the hormone that controls blood sugar). This means that sugar is used abnormally and ends up being stored as fat. Although being overweight is itself a symptom of PCOS, it is important to note that the other symptoms of PCOS (such as acne and hairiness) also tend to get increasingly worse as you put on more and more weight. This means that women with the condition should identify their ideal body weight and fight to stay at this weight, even though this will usually involve what feels like a decidedly unfair restriction of calories (as well as more exercise than most women need in order to stay slim).
3) Irregular periods:
The reason why women with PCOS have irregular periods is that their unusual balance of hormones results in problems producing and/or releasing eggs on a monthly basis. Many who suffer from PCOS will have what appear to be extremely long cycles (lasting around six weeks), and many also have periods only once or twice a year. Use of oral contraceptives can help to stabilize menstrual cycles, though this will not be advised in all cases.
4) High blood pressure:
Many women with PCOS also suffer from hypertension (or high blood pressure) at a relatively young age. Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight may reduce your blood pressure to an acceptable level, but some women with PCOS will have to start taking medications in order to treat their hypertension.
5) Unwanted body hair:
Around 70% of PCOS sufferers also find that they have more body hair than other women they know. This often appears on the face (especially around the lips and chin), the lower abdomen, and the breasts. Once again, hormone therapy can sometimes make a difference to this symptom, though many women find that they can cope with it if they simply shave, pluck or bleach these areas on a regular basis.
6) Absent periods:
Some women with PCOS have no periods at all. If you have stopped having periods, it is important that you see your doctor to discuss PCOS and other hormone-based conditions (as some more serious diseases are linked to the cessation of periods as well). If you are diagnosed with PCOS and continue to lack periods, you will probably be advised to start taking a contraceptive pill in order to make sure you shed your womb lining. This is because a lack of periods is linked to a higher risk of endometrial cancer.
7) Difficulty conceiving:
Some women only discover that they have PCOS when they try to get pregnant and find that it is more difficult than they expected. The reduced fertility that is characteristic of PCOS results from the low ovulation rate (which in turn results from the fact that the follicles on the ovaries fail to mature). However, there are treatments available to stimulate the ovaries and aid in conception.
8. Acanthosis nigrans:
This oddly named symptom involves what is described as a ‘velvety thickening’ and unusual pigmentation of skin in specific places (usually around the armpits, groin, breasts, neck, and joints on the hands and arms). Weight loss sometimes helps to reduce the appearance of this PCOS symptom.
9) Thinning hair on the scalp:
Although most women with PCOS complain about having too much hair rather than too little, some end up with thinning scalp hair that looks similar to male pattern baldness. There are some gels and creams that may help with this problem.
If many of the above symptoms sound familiar to you, make an appointment with your doctor or gynecologist to talk about being tested for polycystic ovary syndrome (as well as for conditions that cause similar hormone imbalances, such as hypothyroidism and adrenal gland problems). Investigations into PCOS will usually involve some blood tests and a painless ultrasound. Once you receive a PCOS diagnosis, your doctor will advise you about treatments and lifestyle modifications that may be particularly helpful in your individual case (especially if you would like to become pregnant in the near future).