Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects how your ovaries work. Despite the name, there are no cysts on the ovaries. During ovulation, an egg is released once a month. PCOS can have an impact on this and cause irregular ovulation, or no ovulation at all. If you want to have a family, PCOS can make it difficult to get pregnant.

PCOS can also affect your metabolism (the chemical reactions in the body's cells that change food into energy) making it easier to gain weight and more difficult to lose weight.

Symptoms

You are born with PCOS, but symptoms often start during puberty although for some people this can be later, up to their early twenties.

There are lots of different symptoms that can be caused by PCOS. The main symptoms are:

  • irregular periods – you should have at least 3 or 4 periods a year to keep the womb healthy if you're not using hormonal contraception
  • excess facial or body hair which is caused by slightly higher levels of 'male' hormones in your body (androgen)

Other symptoms can include:

  • weight gain
  • hair loss or hair thinning
  • oily skin or acne
  • difficulty or delays getting pregnant

People who have PCOS can also struggle with depression and with their mental health as a result of the condition.

PCOS can increase your risk of certain health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

You should speak to your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms and you are not pregnant or on hormone treatment.

Causes

The exact cause of PCOS isn't known but it's thought to be caused by a hormone and metabolic (the chemical reactions in the body's cells that change food into energy) imbalance in the body.

PCOS can run in families so if someone in your family has the condition, it's more likely you may have it too. You should let your doctor know if this is the case for you.

People with PCOS have a higher risk of developing health problems in later life, such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol levels, as PCOS can make it easier to gain weight and more difficult to lose weight.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms to help rule out any other health conditions.

It can be helpful to keep a note of your period dates and symptoms using a calendar, a diary or an app. This can help you track how the symptoms are affecting your life, and will give your doctor more of an insight.

Your doctor might recommend you have some hormone and/or blood tests, to rule out any other hormone-related conditions.

You might also need to have an ultrasound scan, as this will help them to diagnose PCOS.

If you're diagnosed with PCOS, you may be referred to a specialist.

Treatment

Treatment can vary depending on your symptoms. Although there's no cure, there are lots of treatment options available to help manage your symptoms. Treatments can also help prevent complications and, if you want to have a family, improve your chances of getting pregnant. If you don’t want to become pregnant you should still use contraception as you may still ovulate sometimes.

Your doctor can discuss the options so that you can decide what's best for you, and you can ask any questions that you might have.

Having a healthy diet and exercising regularly can significantly help your PCOS symptoms. It can also reduce your chances of developing other health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

You should try to:

  • eat lots of fruit and vegetables
  • eat more fibre
  • drink plenty of water
  • eat oily fish
  • reduce meat and dairy products
  • avoid sugary food and drink
  • avoid or limit alcohol
  • going for regular walks
  • keeping active, in particular aerobic exercise

If you're struggling with managing your symptoms, your doctor can provide further support.

Last updated:
29 September 2022

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