Woman with polycycstic ovary syndrome (PCOS) wearing pink jumper sat on couch.

PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and has nothing to do with having cysts, despite the name!

Although many people know very little about Polycystic Ovaries, it is actually very common condition that affects between 3% - 10% of women. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimating that it has affected 116 million women worldwide.[1]

It refers to when your ovaries are enlarged because they contain a large number of harmless fluid-filled sacs called follicles that are up to 8mm in size (about the same size as a small pea). Usually, eggs develop in these follicles, but in the case of PCOS they are often unable to release an egg meaning ovulation cannot take place.

People with PCOS have polycystic ovaries coupled with other symptoms such as irregular periods due to the fact that their ovaries don’t regularly release eggs. Another feature of PCOS is excess androgen, this means high levels of “male” hormones, like testosterone are present in the body. This can sometimes cause excess hair growth on your face or body.

What are the signs and symptoms of PCOS?

The symptoms of PCOS usually become apparent during your late teens or early 20s. However, many women with PCOS do not have any symptoms at all!
PCOS symptoms are extremely varied, and no experience is the same. They include having irregular periods, or no periods at all, and finding it difficult to get pregnant as a result of irregular ovulation, or failure to ovulate.
As mentioned, excess androgen hormones can cause excessive hair growth (also known as hirsutism) on areas like the face, chest, back or bum. Some women experience weight gain, thinning hair and hair loss from the head, oily skin or acne. All of these symptoms can be difficult to manage, and sometimes it can feel like you’re fighting a battle against yourself that you can’t win. PCOS can take a toll on your self-esteem and mental health, but just know that there is support available that can drastically improve things, and help you to feel better about your body and your health. It can also be beneficial to be more conscious of listening to your body, so you can keep track of any changes and come to a better understanding of how to look after yourself.

What causes polycystic ovaries?

The exact cause of polycystic ovaries is unknown, although it often runs in families. It might be helpful to ask your older sister, mum, grandma, cousins and aunts about their experiences, especially if they have already been diagnosed with PCOS, as they may be able to shed some light on how to cope.
PCOS is related to irregular hormone levels in the body, in particular high levels of the hormone insulin which is released from the pancreas to control sugar levels in your body. People with PCOS may be resistant to insulin in the body, so their bodies produce higher levels of insulin to compensate. This contributes to the ovaries producing increased amounts of other hormones such as testosterone, which interferes with the development of the follicles and prevents ovulation.

What are the effects of these hormones?

There can be some long-term effects of the hormone imbalance associated with PCOS, such as an increased risk of developing certain health problems like high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. That’s why it’s important to trust your gut feeling, listen to your body and get checked out by a medical professional to make sure you are getting the help to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Why does PCOS cause weight gain?

As PCOS makes it harder for the body to use the hormone insulin, it can cause insulin and sugar to build up in the bloodstream. High insulin levels can increase the production of androgens (male hormones) which trigger weight gain particularly in the abdomen area, as this is where men typically carry weight.
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, so you should never feel pressured to lose weight for anything other than your own health and happiness. Weight loss for people with PCOS can be difficult, but it does have some benefits. It can help you to feel better, relieve some of the symptoms of PCOS and may bring your periods back to normal. To get started, visit your doctor to get advice on how to lose weight in a healthy, managed way.

What treatments are available for polycystic ovary syndrome?

Sadly, there is currently no cure for PCOS, although the symptoms can be treated.
There are medications available to treat symptoms such as excessive hair growth, irregular periods and fertility problems. In cases where this doesn’t work, a procedure called laparoscopic ovarian drilling (LOD) is available to destroy the tissue that produces androgens. There’s also the option of lifestyle changes to ease symptoms – losing weight and eating more healthily can help. With fertility treatment, most women with PCOS are able to get pregnant.
To find out more about pregnancy and period problems, read our page on how fertility is affected by endometriosis.

Medical disclaimer

The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition.


[1]  A.M. Kabel Polycystic ovarian syndrome: insights into pathogenesis, diagnosis, prognosis, pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatment Pharmacol. Rep., 1 (103) (2016), pp. E1-E5

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