Learn more about the symptoms of PCOS & how the condition can affect your health & fertility
PCOS is a fairly common condition – in fact, it’s thought to affect up to one in 10 women in the UK. It can be difficult to define too, as many people with ovaries experience different symptoms. Essentially, PCOS is a hormone imbalance that affects a person’s ovaries.
What is PCOS?
People with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are thought to have abnormal hormone levels in the body, such as high levels of insulin. Many women with PCOS are resistant to the action of insulin in their body, and so produce higher levels to overcome this. As a result, this contributes to the increased production and activity of hormones, including testosterone.
PCOS has three main effects on the body:
• Irregular periods – your ovaries will not regularly release eggs
• Excess androgen – high levels of certain hormones in your body which may create physical signs such as excess facial hair
• Polycystic ovaries – your ovaries contain a large number of harmless fluid-filled sacs (follicles) in which your eggs develop. With polycystic ovaries, the underdeveloped sacs are often unable to release an egg, meaning ovulation will not take place. Your ovaries may also become enlarged.
Some people with PCOS will experience all three of these effects on the body, while others will only experience one or two. However, more than half of people with PCOS do not experience any symptoms.
Those with PCOS can still live a healthy and regular life, but may have difficulty getting pregnant. A diagnosis will help you manage any symptoms or potential future risks, and will enable you to access the appropriate treatment.
What causes PCOS?
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but it’s widely thought to be related to abnormal hormone levels. Many people with PCOS are found to have raised levels of testosterone, luteinising hormone (which stimulates ovulation but may have an abnormal effect on the ovaries if levels are too high) and prolactin (a hormone that stimulates the breast glands to product milk in pregnancy). They may also have low levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (a protein that reduces the effect of testosterone).
It's also thought that a resistance to insulin is linked to PCOS. Insulin is produced by the pancreas to control the amount of sugar in the blood. It moves glucose from the blood into cells, where it is broken down to produce energy. If your body tissues are resistant to insulin, your body will have to produce extra insulin to compensate.
High levels of insulin can cause the ovaries to produce too much testosterone, which can prevent your follicles from developing properly. Underdeveloped follicles can’t release eggs, so ovulation won’t occur.
It’s also believed that PCOS can run in families. If any of your relatives, such as your mother, sister or aunt, have PCOS, your risk of developing it will more than likely be higher.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
If you do notice any symptoms of PCOS, it’s likely to be during your late teens or early 20s, however PCOS can affect people at any point in their child-bearing age.
Symptoms of PCOS include:
• Irregular periods or no period at all
• Difficulty getting pregnant. This could be because of irregular ovulation or failure to ovulate
• Excess hair growth, usually on the face, chest, back or buttocks
• Weight gain
• Thinning hair or hair loss from the head
• Oily skin or acne
Some people with PCOS may only experience a small number of these symptoms, and they can also vary from mild to severe.
There may also be a link between PCOS and an increased risk of health problems in later life, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, sleep apnoea and depression.
Can PCOS be treated?
While PCOS can’t be cured, the symptoms can be managed. Treatment options will vary from person to person, depending on the symptoms they experience.
If you are overweight, health professionals usually recommend trying to lose weight as one form of treatment for PCOS, as obesity and weight gain have strong links to PCOS. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise are also encouraged more generally for people with PCOS.
If you’re struggling with irregular or absent periods, the contraceptive pill may be recommended to induce a regular period.
Medicines are also available to help control excessive hair growth or hair loss, as well as other symptoms that you might experience.
Can I still conceive if I have PCOS?
Yes, most women with PCOS are still able to conceive, however they are more likely to have trouble getting pregnant. This is because the symptoms of PCOS often cause them to ovulate infrequently or not ovulate at all.
With treatment, most women with PCOS can get pregnant. The most common treatment is a short course of tablets that are taken at the beginning of each cycle for several months. If this is unsuccessful, you may be offered injections or IVF treatment instead.
When should I see a doctor?
If you’re experiencing any symptoms of PCOS, book an appointment to see your GP, who may then refer you to a specialist. A specialist can help you understand more about the condition and outline any treatment that you may like to consider.