Susan never imagined her irregular periods, weight gain, fertility problems and cosmetic issues like acne and excessive facial hair were all related to the same condition. But when she mentioned these problems to her doctor, she learned they could all add up to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—the most common hormonal disorder affecting childbearing-age women in the United States. It’s also the leading cause of female infertility.
In PCOS, the ovaries become enlarged and form multiple cysts, disrupting the menstrual cycle. All women produce male sex hormones called androgens, but women with PCOS produce too much, which can stop ovulation and result in infertility, excessive hair growth and irregular bleeding. Also, eggs in the ovaries don’t mature and aren’t released. Instead, they remain in the ovary and form cysts. The condition is typically diagnosed when a woman is in her 20s or 30s.
Women with PCOS also have high levels of insulin in their blood, and their cells don’t respond normally to this hormone. That can make it hard to lose weight and puts PCOS sufferers at greater risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Your healthcare provider diagnoses PCOS based on your medical history, a physical exam, blood tests and possibly other tests such as vaginal or abdominal ultrasound. Treatment focuses on addressing individual symptoms and may include:
- weight loss and exercise to help manage diabetes and blood pressure and reduce heart disease and stroke risk
- smoking cessation to reduce heart disease risk
- medications to treat high blood sugar when diet and exercise fail to control it adequately
- hormones to regulate menstruation and suppress androgen
- spironolactone (a diuretic) to decrease androgen and treat acne and excessive hair growth
- plucking, waxing, shaving or depilatory products to get rid of unwanted hair
If you have a hard time dealing with the condition’s emotional aspects, seek out a PCOS support group or ask your healthcare provider about ways to cope.