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Polycystic ovary syndrome

What is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a disorder that occurs when levels of certain hormones in the body are abnormal. Women with PCOS may have irregular or no menstrual periods, infertility, and excess hair growth. PCOS also can cause long-term health problems in women, but it can be treated.

How common is PCOS?

PCOS is the most common cause of infrequent periods.

What causes PCOS?

Each month an egg matures in a woman's ovary. The egg develops in a sac called a follicle. While all women produce some male sex hormones, women with PCOS produce an excess amount of these. When too much is produced, it can prevent ovulation (and therefore disturb the periods). This can result in difficulties falling pregnant. Too much androgen also can result in excess hair growth, acne and irregular bleeding. Around 20 out of every 100 women have polycystic ovaries. Most women with polycystic ovaries do not have the syndrome PCOS. PCOS is more than just multiple small cysts on the ovaries.

Can PCOS cause longer term problems?

Many women with PCOS produce too much insulin or the amount they produce does not work as it should. This is one reason why women with PCOS tend to gain weight or have a hard time losing weight. They also have an increased risk of diabetes (a condition in which the levels of sugar in the blood are too high), high blood pressure, and heart disease. If you have few periods or no periods at all, the lining of your womb (known as the endometrium) may be more likely to thicken. Having regular periods usually prevents this. If the endometrium thickens, it can sometimes lead to cancer.

How is PCOS diagnosed?

The diagnosis is based on a medical history, physical examination and blood tests. An ultrasound exam may be done to look for small cysts on the ovary.

What are the treatment options?

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a lifelong condition, but it can be treated in a number of ways. Treatment depends on the symptoms and whether or not a woman wants to become pregnant. Long-term treatment may be needed to help prevent endometrial cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Following a balanced diet and taking regular exercise are the best ways in you can help yourself. This improves the body's use of insulin and can help reduce the long-term health risks associated with PCOS. If you are overweight, losing weight will help you, and if your periods are irregular or non-existent they may become more normal. Even if you are not overweight, you should take care to keep your weight within the normal range.

To reduce the risk of developing endometrial cancer, your doctor may offer you treatment with hormones (like the contraceptive pill) to ensure that you have more regular periods. Women who wish to become pregnant can sometimes be given medications to help them ovulate. Some women with PCOS will be prescribed medication to lower their insulin levels.

Your doctor also may prescribe the contraceptive pill and other medications to help slow the growth of new body hair. It may take a number of months for you to notice any results. These medications likely will not remove hair that is already there. Unwanted hair can be removed by shaving, electrolysis, or other hair removal methods.