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What is PCOS?

Living Well with PCOS cover.Click on the image above for some cool tools for staying well with PCOS.
[pdf icon PDF 488K]

Polycystic (say: pah-lee-SIS-tik) ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormone imbalance that affects around 1 out of 10 women. Girls as young as 11 can get PCOS. This section is for you if you have PCOS or are struggling with common signs of the condition, such as irregular periods, acne, or unwanted body hair. Read answers to commonly asked questions about PCOS below, or go straight to our Living Well with PCOS [pdf icon PDF 488K] guide.

What are the signs of PCOS? arrow top

Some common signs of PCOS include:

  • Irregular periods or none at all
  • Pelvic pain
  • Extra hair on your face or other parts of your body, called “hirsutism” (say: HER-soo-tism)
  • Acne
  • Weight gain and/or trouble losing weight
  • Patches of dark skin on the back of your neck and other areas

If you have some or all of the above signs, you might have PCOS. There may be other reasons that you might have one or more of these signs. Only your doctor can tell for sure.

What causes PCOS? arrow top

No one knows the exact cause of PCOS. We do know that it comes from problems with hormones, or natural body chemicals. Many girls with PCOS have too much insulin, a hormone that helps turn food into energy. Extra insulin can cause the darkened skin you may have on your neck, behind your knees, and other places. Also, having too much insulin may cause your body to make more of hormones called androgens (say: AN-druh-junz). Although these hormones cause male traits, females have them too. It’s the extra androgen that can lead to acne, excess body hair, weight gain, and irregular periods.

What tests are used to diagnose PCOS? arrow top

If you think you may have PCOS, it’s smart to see your doctor. And knowing what to expect during the appointment can make it less stressful. Here’s a list of some of what you might experience:

  • Questions from your doctor about your menstrual cycle and your health
  • A physical examination, including a measure of your body mass index (BMI) and waist size. You may also have an examination of the outside of your vagina.
  • A blood test to check your hormone levels and blood sugar levels

Does PCOS mean I have cysts on my ovaries? arrow top

The term "polycystic ovaries" means that there are lots of tiny cysts, or bumps, inside of the ovaries. Some young women with PCOS have these cysts; many others do not. Even if you do have them, they are not harmful and do not need to be removed.

Will PCOS affect my ability to have children some day? arrow top

Women with PCOS may have trouble getting pregnant, but some women have no trouble at all. If you are concerned about your fertility (ability to get pregnant) in the future, talk to your doctor about all the new options available. These include medications to lower your insulin levels and to help you ovulate — or release an egg — each month.

Does PCOS put me at risk for other conditions arrow top

If you have PCOS, you may be at higher risk for other health problems. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

Women with PCOS often have low levels of the hormone progesterone. Progesterone causes the endometrium to shed each month as your period. If you don't have enough progesterone, the endometrium becomes thick, which can cause heavy or irregular bleeding. In time, this can lead to endometrial hyperplasia, which means the uterus gets thick with abnormal cells, or cancer.

Getting your PCOS symptoms under control at an early age may help to reduce these risks.

What is the treatment for PCOS? arrow top

There is no cure for PCOS, but there are lots of ways to treat it. You may use a few of them or different ones at different times, depending on your symptoms.

One great way to deal with PCOS is to eat well and exercise. If you are overweight, losing weight may help with symptoms and may reduce health risks related to PCOS. Don’t smoke — or try to quit if you’ve started. Learn more in our guide Living Well with PCOS.

Birth control pills are a very common form of treatment for PCOS. Birth control pills contain hormones that can:

  • Correct the PCOS hormone imbalance
  • Lower the level of male hormones, which will lessen acne and hair growth
  • Regulate your menstrual periods
  • Lower the risk of endometrial cancer (which is higher in young women who don’t ovulate regularly)

Metformin is another medicine that may help with ovulation and other PCOS issues. Your doctor may also ask you to take a blood test to measure your body's ability to use glucose. (Glucose is a kind of sugar that your body breaks food into to use for fuel.) This test will help find out if you are more likely to get diabetes, which sometimes is also treated with metformin.

Anti-androgens work to reduce the effects of the male hormones on girls with PCOS. They can help clear up acne and hair growth. You can also deal with unwanted hair through electrolysis, hair removal creams, and laser treatment. There are lots of other options for treating acne.

What if I have worries about having PCOS? arrow top

If you have been told you have PCOS, you may feel frustrated or sad. You may also feel relieved that at last there is an explanation for the problems you have been having with keeping a healthy weight, having excess body hair, acne, or irregular periods. At the same time, having a diagnosis without an easy cure can be difficult. Keep in mind that there are treatments for many of the problems that PCOS can cause. And it is important for girls with PCOS to know they are not alone. Finding a doctor who knows a lot about PCOS and who you feel comfortable talking to is very important. Keeping a positive attitude and working on a healthy lifestyle even when results seem to take a long time is very important too! Many girls with PCOS tell us that talking with a counselor about their concerns can be very helpful. Other girls recommend Internet chats.

Having a healthy lifestyle through ups and downs is the first step to living with PCOS!

 

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Content last reviewed October 13, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.

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