Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) - Topic Overview
Polycystic ovary syndrome (say "pah-lee-SIS-tik OH-vuh-ree SIN-drohm") is a
problem in which a woman's
hormones are out of balance. It can cause problems
with your periods and make it difficult to get pregnant. PCOS also may cause
unwanted changes in the way you look. If it isn't treated, over time it can
lead to serious health problems, such as
diabetes and heart disease.
Most women with PCOS grow many small
cysts on their ovaries. That is why it is called
polycystic ovary syndrome. The cysts are not harmful but lead to hormone
Early diagnosis and treatment can help control the symptoms
and prevent long-term problems.
Hormones are chemical messengers that trigger many different processes,
including growth and energy production. Often, the job of one hormone is to
signal the release of another hormone.
For reasons that are not
well understood, in PCOS the hormones get out of balance. One hormone change
triggers another, which changes another. For example:
- The sex hormones get out of balance.
ovaries make a tiny amount of male sex hormones (androgens). In PCOS, they start making slightly more
androgens. This may cause you to stop
ovulating, get acne, and grow extra facial and body
- The body may have a problem using
insulin resistance. When the body doesn't use insulin
well, blood sugar levels go up. Over time, this increases your chance of
The cause of
PCOS is not fully
understood, but genetics may be a factor. PCOS seems to run in families, so your chance of
having it is higher if other women in your family have it or have irregular periods
or diabetes. PCOS can be passed down from either your mother's or father's
Symptoms tend to be mild at
first. You may have only a few symptoms or a lot of them. The most common
- Weight gain and trouble
- Extra hair on the face and body. Often women get
thicker and darker facial hair and more hair on the chest, belly, and
- Thinning hair on the scalp.
- Irregular periods.
Often women with PCOS have fewer than nine periods a year. Some women have no
periods. Others have very heavy bleeding.
- Fertility problems. Many
women who have PCOS have trouble getting pregnant (infertility).
To diagnose PCOS, the
- Ask questions about your past health,
- Do a physical exam to
look for signs of PCOS, such as extra body hair and
high blood pressure. The doctor will also check your
height and weight to see if you have a healthy
body mass index (BMI).
- Do a number of
lab tests to check your blood sugar, insulin, and other hormone levels. Hormone
tests can help rule out thyroid or other gland problems that could cause
You may also have a pelvic
ultrasound to look for cysts on your ovaries. Your
doctor may be able to tell you that you have PCOS without an ultrasound, but
this test will help him or her rule out other problems.