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What is polycystic ovary syndrome?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that occurs when cysts form on a woman’s ovaries. An imbalance of hormone levels in a woman’s body causes the cysts to form. The cysts are like tiny, fluid-filled balloons.
Women can develop PCOS during their teenage or childbearing years. PCOS can cause changes in a woman’s:
- Menstrual cycles
- Hormone levels
- Heart and blood vessels
Usually, women who have PCOS have irregular, infrequent, or no menstrual periods. They may also have trouble getting pregnant. Some women who have PCOS do not experience any symptoms.
Other signs and symptoms of PCOS may include:
- Overweight and obesity
- Excessive hair growth on the face, nipple area, chest, lower abdomen, and thighs
- Thinning hair or bald spots
- Dark patches of skin
- Anxiety or depression
- Pelvic pain
Women who have PCOS are also more likely to have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and triglycerides. Together with obesity, these conditions are known as the “metabolic syndrome.”
What causes polycystic ovary syndrome?
Doctors do not know exactly what causes PCOS. If you have PCOS, you have a hormone imbalance. Your ovaries make too much of one type of hormone (called androgens). You may also have too much insulin, which regulates your blood sugar levels. These hormone problems cause the symptoms of PCOS.
PCOS seems to be heredity, meaning that it runs in families. You are more likely to have PCOS if your mother or sister has PCOS.
How is polycystic ovary syndrome diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and will look for the signs of PCOS. He or she will give you a full physical examination, which will most likely include a pelvic exam. Blood tests that measure your hormone levels can also help. An ultrasound exam can show if you have cysts on your ovaries.
Polycystic ovary syndrome treatment
Treatment for PCOS focuses on managing the symptoms. You might need to lose weight. Eating healthy and getting plenty of exercise can help manage PCOS.
Medicine can help regulate your menstrual cycle and reduce abnormal hair growth and acne. Birth control pills (for women not trying to have a baby) and metformin are 2 prescription medicines that are often helpful. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, those conditions also need treatment. If you want to have a baby, there are medicines that may help you get pregnant.
Can polycystic ovary syndrome be prevented or avoided?
There is no way to prevent polycystic ovary syndrome. There is also no cure. However, you can manage symptoms of PCOS through lifestyle changes and medication. Talk to your doctor about how to best manage your symptoms.
Living With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
If you have PCOS, you are more likely to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or type 2 diabetes. This means you have a greater risk for strokes and heart attacks. It is important to work with your doctor on a health plan to minimize these risks.
Problems with menstrual periods may also cause women who have PCOS to be infertile (unable to get pregnant). PCOS also causes you to have a higher risk for cancer of the uterus or breast. You should see your doctor regularly for health screenings.
Women who have PCOS are also more likely to have anxiety or depression. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, talk to your doctor. Treatment is available.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- What is the likely cause of my polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
- Am I at risk for other health problems?
- I’d like to get pregnant. How does PCOS affect my chances?
- What lifestyle changes should I make at home to help relieve my symptoms?
- What kind of diet will help me regulate my blood sugar levels?
- What are my treatment options? What treatment do you recommend for me?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.