What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal endocrine disorder that affects, on average, one out of every ten women. PCOS is the leading cause of infertility among women of childbearing age. But despite the frequency at which PCOS occurs, it’s believed that less than 50% of women with the condition are actually diagnosed. This could be because PCOS isn’t fully understood, and because symptoms can vary widely from case to case. This means that many women live without an official diagnosis of PCOS.

Effects of PCOS on periods and fertility

PCOS can affect female fertility in the following ways.

  • Irregular or infrequent periods.
  • Anovulation, or times when the ovary doesn’t release an egg during the menstrual cycle.
  • Multiple cysts on the ovaries. These cysts are formed when eggs contained in ovarian follicles aren’t released when they’re mature, and instead keep growing.

Any of these symptoms can make it difficult for women with PCOS to become pregnant.

Physical symptoms

Women with PCOS can have a number of different symptoms, but there are some symptoms that commonly indicate the possibility of PCOS.

  • Excess weight
  • Excess hair on the face, chest, stomach, toes, or back
  • Acne, dandruff, or oily skin
  • Patches of skin that are darker than others
  • Skin tags, especially around the armpits or neck
  • Thinning hair
  • Sleep apnea

The three classic symptoms physicians commonly look for are abnormal hair growth, obesity, and anovulation.


No one knows the exact cause of PCOS, but experts believe it could be genetic, since many women with PCOS also have a close female relative with the condition.

Women with PCOS have imbalanced levels of certain hormones – specifically, androgen and insulin. This causes the physical symptoms of PCOS. High levels of androgen, typically considered to be a ‘male’ hormone (but which is also present in women), leads to higher rates of acne, skin tags, oily skin, hair growth, weight problems, and difficulty ovulating. Women with PCOS have a harder time using insulin, too, and so it builds up in their body, causing symptoms like darkened skin. Women with PCOS are also more likely to have diabetes, which is related to the body’s resistance to insulin.


There isn’t a single test that healthcare providers use to diagnose PCOS. To make a diagnosis, a provider might do any or all of the following:

  • Ask about the patient’s medical history
  • Perform a physical exam
  • Perform a pelvic exam to look for any abnormalities
  • Take a blood test to check hormone levels
  • Perform an ultrasound, which helps them see the ovaries and uterus


PCOS can’t be cured, but it can be managed through certain lifestyle changes. Some ways to manage PCOS are by eating a well-balanced diet, getting regular exercise, losing weight, and taking birth control pills. Other options for treatment include surgical options and medicines that help with hormone levels. If you have questions about this, ask your provider to explain what treatments are available to you.


Many women with PCOS can help to lessen symtoms of the condition through lifestyle changes and medication. Treatment and diagnosis are also important because having the condition increases a woman’s odds of other health problems. Women with PCOS have a higher risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Getting regular treatment by a healthcare provider, eating balanced, healthy meals and exercising regularly can help to reduce symptoms and risks associated with PCOS.

  • “Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) fact sheet.” Womenshealth.gov. Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dec 23 2014. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Polycystic ovary syndrome: Causes.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Sep 3 2014. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Polycystic ovary syndrome: Complications.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Sep 3 2014. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Polycystic ovary syndrome: Treatments and drugs.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Sep 3 2014. Web.
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