Polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work. If you have symptoms of PCOS (see below), you will usually notice them during your late teens or early 20s. Speak to your GP if you think you may have PCOS.

About polycystic ovary syndrome

The three main features of PCOS are:

  • irregular periods – which means your ovaries don't regularly release eggs (ovulation)
  • excess androgen – high levels of ’male hormones’ in your body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair (see signs and symptoms below)
  • polycystic ovaries – your ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) which surround the eggs (despite the name, if you have PCOS you don't actually have cysts)

If you have at least two of these features you may be diagnosed with PCOS.

Polycystic ovaries

Polycystic ovaries contain large amounts of harmless follicles. The follicles are under-developed sacs in which eggs develop. In PCOS, these sacs are often unable to release an egg. This means that ovulation doesn't take place.

Signs and symptoms of PCOS

PCOS affects about six in every 100 women. If you do have signs and symptoms of PCOS, they'll usually become obvious during your late teens or early 20s. They can include:

  • irregular periods or no periods at all
  • difficulty getting pregnant as a result of irregular ovulation or failure to ovulate
  • excessive hair growth– usually on the face, chest, back or buttocks
  • weight gain
  • thinning hair and hair loss from the head
  • oily skin or acne  

Not all women with PCOS will have all of the symptoms. Each symptom can vary from mild to severe. 

PCOS is also linked with an increased risk of developing health problems in later life, such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol levels.

Causes of PCOS

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but it often runs in families. It's related to abnormal hormone levels in the body, including high levels of insulin.

This contributes to the increased production and activity of hormones such as testosterone. Being overweight or obese also increases the amount of insulin your body produces.

Insulin is a hormone that controls sugar levels in the body.

Treating PCOS

There's no cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can be treated. Speak to your GP if you think you may have the condition. They can advise you about the best treatment for you.

If you have PCOS and you're overweight, losing weight and eating a healthy, balanced diet can make some symptoms better.

Medications are also available to treat symptoms such as:

If fertility medications are ineffective, a simple surgical procedure called laparoscopic ovarian drilling (LOD) may be recommended.

With treatment, most women with PCOS are able to get pregnant.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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