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What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

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What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome, also known as PCOS, is a common but long term health condition that affects the way a woman’s ovaries function. PCOS is thought to affect around 1 in 10 women in the UK. 

It’s linked to an imbalance in the level of androgens in the body. Androgens are male sex hormones, such as testosterone, that are also present in female bodies, just to a lower extent. In a woman with PCOS, androgen levels are high, leading to the common physical symptoms of the condition such as facial hair. 

PCOS also disrupts ovulation (the process by which an egg is released from the ovaries each menstrual cycle, which is on average every 28 days) causing irregular periods. This can make it difficult for women with the condition to plan for her periods and make it difficult to become pregnant. 

Despite the name ‘polycystic’, PCOS doesn’t actually cause cysts. Instead, the ovaries can also become enlarged as they fill with fluid filled sacs called follicles that form around each egg, preventing ovulation. These are then visible on ultrasound scans and appear as cysts. 

The symptoms of PCOS usually begin during the late teenage years and early 20s and include:

  • Irregular periods
  • Experiencing no periods at all
  • Weight gain for no other reason
  • Excess hair growth on the face, chest and back (a condition called hirsutism)
  • Hair loss and thinning hair on the head 
  • Oily, acne prone skin
  • Difficulty becoming pregnant 

Some women with PCOS will also produce excessive amounts of the hormone insulin. This can mean that you’re then more susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol problems. 

PCOS often has genetic causes, meaning that if a close female relative has the condition, then you’re more likely to also have the condition. Sometimes it will cause no physical symptoms, and a woman may only be diagnosed if she’s undergoing fertility tests after struggling to become pregnant. 

There is no ultimate cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can be managed. If necessary, diet and exercise to manage your weight can be helpful in significantly reducing the effects of PCOS on the body. 

The contraceptive pill can be helpful in regulating your periods and other medications that can help reduce hair loss or control excessive hair growth are also available to women with PCOS. 

Most women with PCOS go on to have successful pregnancies after treatment. The first course of action for a woman with PCOS struggling to become pregnant is a drug called clomifene that stimulates the production of an egg each menstrual cycle. This is often very effective, but if it isn’t, assisted fertility procedures such as IVF can be used to help. 

If you think you or a relative has PCOS, then make an appointment to see your GP. They will perform some blood tests to check your hormone levels and if necessary, refer you for an ultrasound scan to check the health of your ovaries. 

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