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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that can affect women during their childbearing age (ages 15 to 44).
PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries, the reproductive organs that produce oestrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce a small number of male hormones called androgens. PCOS affects up to almost 27 percent of women during their childbearing years.
Early diagnosis and treatment along with weight loss may reduce the risk of long-term complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Some Common PCOS Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of PCOS often develop around the time of the first menstrual period during puberty. Sometimes PCOS develops later, for example, some women only discover they have PCOS after they’ve gained a lot of weight or they’ve had trouble getting pregnant.
Signs and symptoms of PCOS vary. A diagnosis of PCOS is made when you experience at least two of these signs:
• Irregular periods. A lack of ovulation prevents the uterine lining from shedding every month. Some women with PCOS get fewer than eight periods a year.
• Heavy bleeding. The uterine lining builds up for a longer period of time, so the periods you do get can be heavier than normal.
• Hair growth. More than 70 percent of women with this condition grow hair on their face and body — including on their back, belly, and chest. Excess hair growth is called hirsutism.
• Acne. Male hormones can make the skin oilier than usual and cause breakouts on areas like the face, chest, and upper back.
• Weight gain. Up to 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese.
• Male-pattern baldness. The hair on the scalp gets thinner and falls out.
• Darkening of the skin. Dark patches of skin can form in body creases like those on the neck, in the groin, and under the breasts.
• Headaches. Hormone changes can trigger headaches in some women.
What causes polycystic ovary syndrome?
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes PCOS. They believe that high levels of male hormones prevent the ovaries from producing hormones and making eggs normally.
Genes, insulin resistance, and inflammation have all been linked to excess androgen production.
• High levels of androgens: Androgens are sometimes called “male hormones,” although all women make small amounts of androgens. Androgens control the development of male traits, such as male-pattern baldness. Women with PCOS have more androgens than normal. Higher than normal androgen levels in women can prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg (ovulation) during each menstrual cycle, and can cause extra hair growth and acne, two signs of PCOS.
• High levels of insulin: Insulin is a hormone that controls how the food you eat is changed into energy. Insulin resistance is when the body’s cells do not respond normally to insulin. As a result, your insulin blood levels become higher than normal. Many women with PCOS have insulin resistance, especially those who have overweight or obesity, have unhealthy eating habits, do not get enough physical activity, and have a family history of diabetes (usually type 2 diabetes). Over time, insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes.
• Genetics: PCOS sometimes runs in families. If any relatives, such as your mother, sister or aunt, have PCOS, the risk of you developing it is often increased. This suggests there may be a genetic link to PCOS, although specific genes associated with the condition have not yet been identified.
You should see your doctor if: you’ve missed periods and you’re not pregnant; you have symptoms of PCOS, such as hair growth on your face and body; you’ve been trying to get pregnant for over 12 months but haven’t been successful; you have symptoms of diabetes, such as excessive thirst or hunger, blurred vision, or unexplained weight loss.
How Is PCOS Treated?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) cannot be cured, but the symptoms can be managed. You and your doctor will work on a treatment plan based on your symptoms.
Taking oestrogen and progestin daily can restore a normal hormone balance, regulate ovulation, relieve symptoms like excess hair growth, and protect against endometrial cancer. These hormones come in a pill, patch, or vaginal ring.
A few treatments can help get rid of unwanted hair or stop it from growing. Eflornithine (Vaniqa) cream is a prescription drug that slows hair growth. Laser hair removal and electrolysis can get rid of unwanted hair on your face and body.
In overweight women, the symptoms and overall risk of developing long-term health problems from PCOS can be greatly improved by losing excess weight.