PCOS, polycystic ovary syndrome, is a common condition affecting 1 in 10 women. It is a condition affecting how the women ovaries (where eggs are released from) work. There are 3 main features of PCOS which will be explained further in detail throughout the article. PCOS runs in the family, so it’s likely your mother or sisters have similar symptoms or a diabetic history.
So what is PCOS?
‘Polycystic ovaries’ is a simple way of describing what your ovaries look like on an ultrasound scan. Ovaries with several cysts (a collection of fluid) are described as polycystic ovaries. These cysts make the ovaries look a little larger than average on the scan. But just because you have polycystic ovaries does not mean you have the polycystic ovarian syndrome.
PCOS is associated with hormonal imbalances in women of reproductive age. In PCOS, women have elevated levels of testosterone. Yes, testosterone is a male hormone but women need some testosterone too (just not too much). This is coupled with a lack of your body’s response to insulin (the hormone that deals with regulating sugar level in the blood) and polycystic ovaries. This triad of symptoms leads to the syndrome known as PCOS.
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The ‘Rotterdam criteria’ was devised by a group of experts used as criteria for PCOS diagnosis. An individual with at least 2 out of 3 of these following criteria results in the PCOS diagnosis:
- Polycystic ovaries
- Irregular or lack of ovulation - basically irregular or no periods
- Signs of elevated level of testosterone (acne-prone skin and excess hair growth) or found on blood tests
So actually, you don’t necessarily need to have polycystic ovaries to get a PCOS diagnosis.
Why? We always want to know why things happen. It’s just normal human nature. You’ll probably hear this about many medical conditions but the exact cause is unknown. It is annoying to hear but there are some theories. We know that PCOS has a very distinct family history, so if you have it it’s very likely that someone in your family has it too. A large number of women are insulin resistant which means their body is producing higher levels of insulin to overcome this. This does not happen alone. Insulin resistance leads to increased production and activity of testosterone.
Symptoms of PCOS
Symptoms of PCOs usually shows itself in your late teens or early 20s. As we are all unique, our bodies don’t necessarily have the same symptoms as everyone else, and each symptom will vary from mild to severe. Some women might not have any symptoms at all! Obese women tend to have more severe symptoms compared to others. Symptoms include:
- Irregular or lack of periods
- Difficulty trying to conceive (linked to irregular ovulation or lack of ovulation altogether)
- Excessive hair growth (hirsutism) - this usually occurs on the face, chest, back or buttocks
- Weight gain
- Thinning hair and head hair loss
- Oily skin or acne
Most women get diagnosed with PCOS when they try and get pregnant and are very unsuccessful. PCOS is one of the most common female fertility issues. During each menstrual cycle, the ovaries release an egg into the uterus (womb) and this process occurs once a month. For women with PCOS, they often do not undergo this process regularly or at all which means they have irregular periods making it difficult to get pregnant.
Now, if you notice yourself having any of these symptoms and think you might have PCOS, make an appointment with your doctor and get some advice.
If you’re looking for a cure, sadly there is no one currently. But some many treatments and medications can help manage the symptoms of PCOS. The treatments and medications prescribed depend on the severity and type of symptoms you’re experiencing.
The contraceptive pill most women use for preventing unwanted pregnancies also has another use. It can be used as a way to induce regular periods in women with PCOS. For women who do not get periods at all, a progesterone pill delivers an intermittent course of progesterone to induce periods. This pill is given every 3 to 4 months. The unwanted excessive hair growth and loss side effects can be managed with specific medications. Certain types of combined oral contraceptive pills, cyproterone acetate, spironolactone, flutamide, and finasteride manage these symptoms. Right so that was a lot of medical jargon thrown at you, but do not worry you do not need to know about all of them. That’s the doctor’s job but its good to have a rough idea about them. A cream called eflornithine can also slow down the growth of facial hair but does not get rid of it altogether. This cream can take 4-8 weeks to work together but if you want to remove the hair try using it alongside hair removal products.
Many women suffer from PCOS out there, so don’t worry you are not alone. There are many support networks out there if it affecting your life. Do not suffer in silence. Talk to your friends and family, open up to others. If you do not feel comfortable opening up to others, visit your GP. They will always offer help and listen.
- NHS Choices. Treatment - Polycystic ovary syndrome. [Online] NHS. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/treatment/
- NHS Choices. Symptoms - Polycystic ovary syndrome. [Online] NHS. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/symptoms/
- Mayo Clinic. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) - Symptoms and causes. [Online] Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pcos/symptoms-causes/syc-20353439