A lot of 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 imbalances. It can cause problems with your periods and make it difficult to get pregnant. If it isn’t treated, over time it can lead to serious health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. Early diagnosis and treatment can help control the symptoms and prevent long-term problems. 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:
- Women will start making slightly more androgens (male sex hormones). This may cause a stop in normal ovulation, increase acne, and grow unwanted facial and body hair.
- The body may have a problem using insulin, called insulin resistance. When the body doesn’t use insulin well, blood sugar levels go up. Over time, this increases your chance of becoming diabetic.
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 side. Symptoms tend to be mild at first. You may have only a few symptoms or a lot of them. The most common symptoms are:
- Weight gain and trouble losing weight.
- Extra hair on the face and body. Often women get thicker and darker facial hair and more hair on the chest, belly, and back.
- 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 doctor will:
- Ask questions about your past health, symptoms, and menstrual cycles.
- 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 similar symptoms. Your doctor should check you testosterone levels, estrogen levels, progesterone level, and other sex related hormones.
- You may also have a pelvic ultrasound to look for cysts on your ovaries.