Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a common condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work due to a hormonal imbalance. It can cause problems with your periods and make it difficult to get pregnant.

Most women will grow a large number of harmless follicles (up to 8mm in length), which are underdeveloped sacs in which eggs develop. With PCOS, these sacs turn into cysts that are often unable to release an egg, which means that ovulation doesn’t take place.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is thought to affect around one in five women in the UK, and more than half these women don’t have symptoms.

What causes PCOS?

The exact cause of PCOS in unknown – doctors believe that hormonal imbalances and genetics play a vital role. Women are more likely to develop PCOS if their mother or sister also has the condition. If you do have signs or symptoms, they’ll usually start to appear in your late teens or early twenties.

Signs and symptoms include:

PCOS may cause women to develop certain male characteristics, due to a decrease in female sex hormones, such as:

  • Irregular periods or no periods at all
  • More hair than usual on the face, chest, stomach, thumbs or toes
  • Thin hair
  • Deep voice

Other common symptoms include:

  • Acne
  • Weight gain
  • Pelvic pain
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Infertility

Diagnosis of PCOS

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will review your medical history/symptoms and perform tests to rule out any other possible conditions. Your doctor is likely to perform a physical and pelvic examination to look for things such as swollen ovaries or a swollen clitoris.

A blood test will usually be carried out as standard, too. Other tests might include:

  • Thyroid function
  • Fasting glucose tests to measure blood sugar levels
  • Lipid level tests to assess the amount of cholesterol in your blood

Treatment

There is no current cure for PCOS, but there’s treatment for managing and controlling the symptoms to prevent complications.

A healthy diet and regular exercise are recommended for all women with PCOS, particularly those who are overweight. A healthy lifestyle will help regulate your periods and lower your blood glucose levels.

Treatment is also available to control hair growth, irregular periods and fertility problems.

Complications of PCOS

Women who suffer from PCOS have a higher risk of developing:

  • Diabetes
  • Anxiety and depression
  • High cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Endometrial cancer (caused by thickening of the lining of the uterus)
  • Heart attack
  • Breast cancer

Women with PCOS who become pregnant may be referred to a specialist doctor who deals with high-risk pregnancies, as there’s an increased chance of miscarriage, gestational diabetes and premature delivery.

 

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Andrew Drakeley

Mr Andrew Drakeley is the Clinical Director at the Hewitt Fertility Centre, working principally at the Liverpool Women’s site but with managerial responsibility for Knutsford.

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