Fast Facts: What You Need to Know About Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

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Medically reviewed by Robyn Faye, M.D.

September is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) awareness month.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common hormonal disorders in women. Yet, up to 75% of people who have PCOS remain undiagnosed. We reached out to Robyn Faye, M.D., an OB-GYN with Abington-Jefferson Women’s Health Care Group and a member of HealthyWomen’s Women’s Health Advisory Council, to find out what you should know about this condition.

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects the ovaries. People with PCOS may have too many male hormone (androgen) levels or other abnormal lab results, infrequent periods, and/or enlarged ovaries that have small fluid-filled sacs, known as follicles or cysts, on their outer edge.PCOS symptoms are different for everybody. However, some common symptoms of PCOS are:

Irregular periodsSevere acneExcess facial or body hair growth (fancy word for this: hirsutism)Weight gainInsulin resistance (when your body does not respond to insulin, which often results in high blood sugar levels and can possibly lead to diabetes)Abnormally high levels of insulin in your blood (called hyperinsulinemia, if you want to get technical)Any person of reproductive age who has a uterus could develop PCOS. However, some are more at risk than others. Women who have sisters, mothers or daughters (first-degree relatives) with PCOS or related metabolic conditions are more likely to develop PCOS themselves. There also appear to be racial/ethnic differences in the symptoms and severity of PCOS.PCOS can be diagnosed by healthcare providers (HCPs) based on symptoms, a pelvic exam or transvaginal ultrasound to look for abnormalities, or through blood tests. PCOS can be diagnosed when a person has at least two of three telltale signs:Abnormal blood test resultsIrregular periods“Ring of pearls” (ovaries with increased cysts and volume)Clues from blood work that a HCP can use to determine if a person has PCOS can be:
High androgen levelsSigns of metabolic issues such as excessive insulin in blood and high fasting cholesterol, triglyceride or blood glucose levelsWe don’t know exactly what causes PCOS yet, but experts think PCOS is probably influenced by genetics and the environment.There’s no cure for PCOS, but there are many treatments that may help to control PCOS symptoms and keep it from getting worse. The treatment that is right for you depends on your specific needs. For example:Lifestyle changes aimed at weight loss, including a low-calorie diet and exercise program, are common recommendations for all PCOS patients. This is because weight loss may help PCOS get better and help ward off its possible effects on your metabolism.Birth control pills can help reduce androgen levels and regulate a person’s menstrual cycle. Metformin, a common Type 2 diabetes medication, can help improve insulin resistance and lower blood sugar levels.Spironolactone, which minimizes the effect of excess androgens on the skin, may assist with severe acne caused by PCOS.Other conditions that can be caused by PCOS include:Metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which together may increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.Sleep apneaNonalcoholic fatty liver diseaseDepression, anxiety and eating disordersInfertilityIncreased risk of pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, miscarriage or premature birthEndometrial cancer (cancer in the lining of the uterus)