Polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a reproductive hormonal condition affecting the normal function of your ovaries and their ability to release eggs regularly.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the balance of male and female hormones that regulate the production and release of eggs is disrupted.

This causes one or more of the following:

  • Eggs don't develop properly or aren't released from your ovaries
  • Excess male hormones (androgens)
  • Enlarged follicles - fluid-filled sacs in your ovaries where eggs develop (polycystic ovaries)

The enlarged fluid-filled sacs prevent eggs from being released and give the condition its name. However, the term polycystic can be confusing, as you don’t actually have cysts if you have PCOS.

Symptoms include irregular periods, acne and excess facial or body hair (as a result of male hormones). PCOS often leads to infertility problems.

Roughly one in five women in the UK are thought to have PCOS, although more than half don’t have symptoms. It usually starts in teenage years.

Although there's no cure, PCOS can be effectively treated and symptoms managed.

How to tell if you have polycystic ovary syndrome

Common PCOS symptoms are:

  • Irregular or prolonged periods
  • Heavy periods
  • Difficulty getting pregnant
  • Excess facial or body hair (hirsutism)
  • Weight gain
  • Thinning hair
  • Acne

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for polycystic ovary syndrome

See your GP if you’re experiencing these symptoms. You may need the following tests to help with your diagnosis:

  • Hormone tests to determine whether excess hormone production is caused by PCOS or another condition
  • An ultrasound scan, to see whether you have a high number of follicles in your ovaries
  • Diabetes screening 
  • Cholesterol test

Causes of polycystic ovary syndrome

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown.

Some women with PCOS have insulin resistance, the hormone that helps control blood sugar levels. This means your body produces more insulin to compensate, which can trigger the ovaries to increase production of male hormones, such as testosterone. It’s normal for women to have a low level of the male hormones. However, if you have too much, you may have problems with ovulation and unwanted facial and body hair.

PCOS often runs in families, suggesting that specific genes are linked to the condition.

Common treatments for polycystic ovary syndrome

There's no cure but you can treat the symptoms. PCOS treatment includes:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as diet and weight loss
  • Medications to balance hormones and reduce hair growth
  • Fertility treatments

If fertility treatments are unsuccessful, your doctor may recommend a simple surgical procedure called laparoscopic ovarian drilling (LOD). LOD destroys the tissue in your ovary that's producing excess male hormones.






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