What is polycystic ovary syndrome?
Polycystic ovary syndrome or
PCOS for short is a condition that affects the function of the ovaries.
Polycystic literally means 'many cysts' and if you have PCOS, multiple fluid-filled cysts develop in the ovaries and eggs may
not be released regularly.
PCOS is the most common cause
of fertility problems in women and affects approximately 20-30%
What are the ovaries?
The ovaries make up part of the female
reproductive system, each ovary is about the shape and
size of an almond. The ovaries main function is to release eggs
and make hormones such as oestrogen, the main female hormone and
small amounts of hormones known as androgens, the main androgen
(the one most people have heard of) is testosterone, which is found
at much higher levels in men. For more information on ovulation click
What causes polycystic ovary syndrome ?
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown though there
are several factors thought to play a part. The
symptoms of PCOS are caused by a hormone imbalance which can interfere with ovulation, making it rare or irregular. 4
in 10 women with PCOS have raised levels of Luteinising hormone
(LH). LH is the hormone that stimulates the ovaries to ovulate and
is the hormone that ovulation
tests look for. Women with PCOS also have excess androgens.
Insulin is also believed to be involved. The
main role of insulin is to regulate blood sugar levels and many
women with PCOS have insulin resistance, especially women who are
overweight. Insulin resistance means the level of insulin in the
blood needs to be higher than normal to control the blood sugar
level. High levels of insulin signals the ovaries to release extra
testosterone. However, doctors do not fully understand why this
hormone imbalance takes place. It is thought that PCOS is inherited but more research is still being carried
What are the symptoms of polycystic ovary
The symptoms of PCOS vary in each woman and
some women may not even notice that they have it. Some women may
experience mild symptoms and have normal periods. Symptoms of PCOS
could include any of the following :
- Acne, usually in the face.
- Sudden and unexplained
- Period problems such as
irregular or absent periods. 7 out of 10 women with PCOS experience
- Excess body hair, known
as hirsutism. This hair is usually found on the chin, upper lip,
nipple area and on the abdomen. This excess hair is caused by
the increased levels of testosterone.
- Thinning of scalp hair
Symptoms of PCOS typically begin in women in
their late teens or early 20's.
are the long term effects of polycystic ovary syndrome?
A woman with PCOS is more at risk of developing diabetes,
as a result of diabetes there is then an increased risk of heart
disease or a stroke.
Women who have very infrequent periods, less than 4 a year may also
have an increased risk of cancer of the womb. Fortunately however,
this cancer is still quite rare.
How is polycystic
ovary syndrome diagnosed?
If a doctor suspects PCOS then they may take
blood samples to measure levels of the sex hormones LH and testosterone.
You may also have an ultrasound scan to look for the presence of
ovarian cysts. The cysts are 2-8mm in diameter and often form a
chain, described as a 'chain of pearls' sign.
The diagnosis is then made from the results
of the ultasound and hormonal tests.
As women with PCOS have an increased risk of developing
diabetes some doctors may recommend regular checks of blood sugar.
What treatment is available for polycystic
There is no actual cure for PCOS but the symptoms
can be treated. The treatment you receive will depend on the severity
of your symptoms and also if you are trying to conceive. Treatment
for PCOS is aimed at rebalancing the hormones involved.
Infertility problems caused by PCOS can be treated
with drugs that stimulate the body to ovulate. However, if you are
not currently trying for a baby then the contraceptive pill is a
popular choice as it regulates your periods and can also reduce
Symptoms like hair growth can be treated with bleaching
the facial hair to make it less noticeable or by removal methods
such as hair removal creams, plucking, waxing, electrolysis or shaving.
Though shaving the face is not usually a good idea as the hair will
usually grow back more coarse and so will be more obvious.
Acne can be treated with antibiotics and can usually
be kept under control.
Lifestyle changes may be beneficial and it is particularly
helpful to lose any excess weight. Weight loss can lessen many of
the PCOS symptoms. Stick to a healthy balanced diet, give up smoking
and try to get plenty of exercise.