Polycystic Ovaries

Having polycystic ovaries does not mean you have polycystic ovary syndrome. Around 6 or 7 in 100 (6-7%) of women with polycystic ovaries have PCOS.

What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition which can affect a woman's menstrual cycle, fertility, hormones and aspects of her appearance. It can also affect long-term health. Read on for more information about the effects of PCOS on your long-term health.

What are polycystic ovaries?

Polycystic ovaries are slightly larger than normal ovaries and have twice the number of follicles (small cysts). Polycystic ovaries are very common affecting 20 in 100 (20%) of women.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

The symptoms of PCOS can include:

  • irregular periods or no periods at all
  • difficulty becoming pregnant (reduced fertility)
  • having more facial or body hair than is usual for you (hirsutism)
  • loss of hair on your head
  • being overweight, rapid increase in weight, difficulty losing weight
  • oily skin, acne
  • depression and mood swings.

The symptoms may vary from woman to woman. Some women have mild symptoms, while others are affected more severely by a wider range of symptoms.

What causes PCOS?

The symptoms of PCOS are related to abnormal hormone levels. Hormones are chemical messengers which control body functions. Testosterone is a hormone which is produced by the ovaries. Women with PCOS have slightly higher than normal levels of testosterone and this is associated with many of the symptoms of the condition. Insulin is a hormone which regulates the level of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. If you have PCOS, your body may not respond to the hormone insulin (known as insulin resistance), so the level of glucose is higher. To prevent the glucose levels becoming higher, your body produces more insulin. High levels of insulin can lead to weight gain, irregular periods, infertility and higher levels of testosterone.

What could PCOS mean for my long-term health?

You are at greater risk of developing long-term health problems like Insulin resistance and diabetes, High blood pressure, heart disease and Cancer of the endometrium if you have PCOS. These risks vary with your age, family history and several other factors. Not all women who have PCOS will develop all of these problems.

What can I do to reduce long-term health risks?

Have a healthy lifestyle

The main ways to reduce your overall risk of long-term health problems are to:

  • eat a healthy balanced diet. This should include fruit and vegetables and whole foods (such as wholemeal bread, whole grain cereals, brown rice, wholewheat pasta. You should decrease sugar, salt, caffeine and alcohol
  • eat meals regularly especially including breakfast
  • take exercise regularly (30 minutes at least three times a week).

You should aim to keep your weight to a level which is normal (a BMI between 19 and 25). BMI is the measurement of weight in relation to height. Ask your doctor during your consultation for your BMI and keep track of it.

Have regular health checks

Once you have a diagnosis of PCOS, you will be monitored to check for any early signs of health problems. Women with PCOS over the age of 40 should be offered a blood sugar test once a year to check for signs of diabetes. If you are obese (BMI over 30) or have a family history of diabetes, you may be offered testing for diabetes earlier than age 40.

If you have not had a period for a long time (over 4 months), it is advisable to see your doctor. You may be offered a referral for further tests which may include an ultrasound scan.

Discuss with your doctor how often you should have your blood pressure checked and whether you should have blood tests for cholesterol levels.

Is there a cure?

There is no cure for PCOS. Medical treatments aim to manage and reduce the symptoms or consequences of having PCOS. Medication alone has not been shown to be any better than healthy lifestyle changes (weight loss and exercise).

Many women with PCOS successfully manage their symptoms and long-term health risks without medical intervention. They do this by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.