Approximately 4% to 6% of women in the US have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a serious disorder that can make it hard to become pregnant and can lead to other severe health problems. The causes of PCOS are unknown, and many women may not recognize the seemingly unrelated symptoms—irregular periods, being overweight, and having extra facial hair—as signs of a serious health problem.
So what happens in women with PCOS? Unlike normally functioning ovaries which release a single mature egg every month, polycystic ovaries have many eggs that do not get released. This leads to a hormonal imbalance that can cause irregular menstruation and infertility. Women with PCOS also have higher than normal levels of male hormones (androgens). Excess androgens can disrupt ovulation and cause acne and hair growth on the face, the lower part of the abdomen, between the breasts, and on the inner thighs. Women with severe PCOS may experience balding and develop bigger muscles and a deeper voice.
Up to 80% of PCOS sufferers are obese, and they often have difficulty regulating blood sugar and insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar. These problems may lead to an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Though PCOS cannot be cured, it can be treated, and its symptoms can be relieved. Overweight women benefit from exercising for at least 30 minutes a day and losing weight. Dropping even 10–15 pounds may improve symptoms such as menstrual irregularity, high levels of insulin and cholesterol, acne, and excess hair growth. Less insulin can stimulate ovulation and slow undesired hair growth. Birth control pills to regulate your menstrual cycle or medication to control insulin may also be prescribed. For those who want to become pregnant, medications can be used to induce ovulation.
For more information about PCOS, check out ACOG’s Patient FAQ.