Diagnosing and Treating PCOS
Around 1 in 10 women will be diagnosed with PCOS—or polycystic ovarian syndrome—in her lifetime.
A leading cause of infertility, PCOS is more than a diagnosis tied to reproductive issues. Women with PCOS often struggle with lifelong health issues ranging from thinning hair and acne to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the CDC.
“Research is ongoing and we are just beginning to understand the depths of this illness,” said Dr. William Hamilton, a Mon Health OBGYN. “What we do know is that it not only affects a woman’s reproductive system but also increases her risk of developing serious conditions that could have lifelong health implications if symptoms are left unmanaged.”
What is PCOS?
According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, PCOS is characterized by excess levels of male hormones called androgens (hyperandrogenism), irregular or absent ovulation levels and the presence of ovarian cysts. While medical researchers are unclear what causes PCOS, it is closely linked to contributing factors such as insulin resistance, excess bodyweight and family history.
Symptoms of PCOS
Woman with PCOS often experience the illness differently. Some women will experience just one symptom, while others have them all—making PCOS difficult to diagnose.
“Often, it’s not until a woman has trouble getting pregnant that she is screened for and diagnosed with PCOS by a professional,” said Dr. Hamilton. “But symptoms can appear as early as the teenage years, so it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor if you suspect you may have PCOS.”
Symptoms can include:
- Cysts, or fluid-filled sacs, in the ovaries
- Severe acne
- Oily skin
- “Hirsutism,” or excess hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen and thighs
- Patches of dark, thick skin called “acanthosis nigricans”
- Irregular, absent or heavy menstrual periods
PCOS Risk Factors
In addition to these symptoms, women diagnosed with PCOS have a higher chance of developing more serious health complications.
According to the CDC, PCOS is linked to several risk factors, including:
- Gestational diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High LDL cholesterol
- Sleep apnea
- Depression and anxiety
Treatment for PCOS
Dr. Hamilton added that women diagnosed with PCOS can take steps to alleviate symptoms and improve their health.
“Treatment depends on the type and severity of symptoms you’re experiencing,” said Dr. Hamilton. “But coming up with a treatment plan with your doctor is huge in overcoming symptoms—whether you goal is to achieve pregnancy or simply improve your overall health.”
Talk to your doctor about ways to manage PCOS symptoms. Treatments vary widely according to health goals, but may include:
- Lifestyle changes in diet and exercise
- Hormonal birth control pills
- Insulin-sensitizing drugs
- Medications to promote ovulation
- Surgery, in rare case