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What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS for short is a common condition that can affect women and girls as young as age 11. It’s estimated around one in 10 women will have this disorder, equating to nearly 5 million in the United States alone. This condition can lead to problems with fertility, making it tricky to become pregnant and causing issues with your periods.

The condition can also cause changes to your appearance. It is even more serious if not treated, it can affect your general health, potentially causing problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

What Is It?

As its name might suggest, polycystic ovary syndrome frequently causes women to develop numerous small cysts on the ovaries. These are small fluid-filled cysts or sacs that can be detected through ultrasound. Although the cysts themselves aren’t harmful, they can lead to the ovaries becoming enlarged and to hormonal imbalances.

Healthy hormones are essential for a healthy body as they are the chemical messengers responsible for triggering numerous different processes within the body. This can signal when it’s time to release another hormone. It’s not quite understood why hormones become imbalanced in someone with polycystic ovary syndrome.

Normally, a healthy ovary will only manufacture a minuscule amount of androgens or male sex hormones. In someone with PCOS, the ovaries may begin making more of this hormone. This has the effect of halting ovulation which is why this condition can cause fertility problems.

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome may find they have some unwanted body and facial hair, or that they develop acne. Additionally, this condition can cause problems with the way the body uses insulin. Thus, resulting in increased blood glucose levels which in turn increases the risk of developing diabetes.

What Causes It?

Unfortunately, like many conditions resulting in infertility, the exact cause of polycystic ovary syndrome isn’t yet fully understood. It’s possible your genetics may be responsible. If other female family members have problems with their periods or have diabetes, your risk of developing polycystic ovary syndrome is higher. It can come down from your mother’s or your father’s side of the family.

This condition has also been associated with inflammation, where the body is unable to fight infections due to producing insufficient antibodies. This results in the body taking evasive action to prevent pregnancy by producing increased amounts of male hormones.

What are the Signs to Be Aware of?

Symptoms can vary considerably, but in most women, they will begin to manifest soon after the onset of menstruation. However, some women will only develop symptoms much later in life, often after gaining a substantial amount of weight.

Another thing to remember is that some physicians will not begin testing for polycystic ovary syndrome until they can see that you have various symptoms. The degree of these symptoms can vary considerably from one woman to another.

Common signs can include infertility, PCOS is often the reason why some women cannot have children. Another common sign is irregular periods, for example, if the time between periods is generally longer than 35 days. This time frame could extend to several months. Women with PCOS may have excessive dandruff and excess hair, not only on the face but also on the back and on the toes and thumbs.

Dark patches of skin may appear anywhere on the body and skin tags are sometimes more common in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Other symptoms include oily skin, causing acne, weight gain, and pelvic pain.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physician or gynecologist may carry out several tests to determine if your symptoms indicate polycystic ovary syndrome. They may wish to carry out a pelvic examination, as well as fasting and blood glucose tests and tests to measure your hormone levels.

What about Treatment?

Treatment focuses on controlling the symptoms and side effects. Women wishing to get pregnant will often find infertility treatment very successful. Other things that can help include eating healthily and losing weight if you are overweight. This will benefit PCOS and will reduce your risk of developing diabetes through stabilizing insulin production.

Some women will also find that losing weight helps to improve their menstrual cycle, normalizing the production of hormones. If you think you may have this condition, it's well worth seeking help from your gynecologist. They can also help you deal with the emotional side of PCOS and many women find it comforting to join local support groups.

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