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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Symptoms & Diagnosis

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal disorder that affects around 1 in 10 women in the UK[1], with over half experiencing no symptoms. PCOS causes follicles (small collections of fluid) to develop in the ovaries, which can interrupt the regular release of eggs.

What causes PCOS?

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but there are several factors that are linked. PCOS is often hereditary, passing down from generation to generation.

It can also be linked to mistiming and excess amounts of certain hormones, such as insulin, testosterone and luteinizing hormone (LH).

Blood tests can help identify high or low amounts of these hormones, which can help identify PCOS.

PCOS Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome usually appear in your 20s and can easily be missed or ignored. Symptoms include:

Your periods can become irregular or even stop due to the imbalance of hormones.

PCOS can cause irregular ovulation or failure to ovulate as hormone imbalances interfere with the growth and release of eggs. PCOS is the most common cause of infertility in women, and many go undiagnosed until they try to conceive.

High androgen levels (male hormones) can cause excess hair growth in women suffering from PCOS. It’s common for excess hair to grow around the face, chest, back or buttocks.

PCOS can cause you to become insulin resistant. Your body needs insulin to convert sugars and starches from food. Your body will produce more insulin, causing an increase in the levels of androgens (male hormones such as testosterone). These hormones can lead to weight gain around the belly, as this is where men usually carry their weight.

As well as excess hair, thinning and hair loss (male-pattern baldness) is a common symptom of PCOS.

Your skin may become oily or you may experience outbursts of acne due to the increased levels of androgens in your body.

PCOS can cause your body to overproduce hormones; testosterone and luteinizing hormone, as well as insulin. This can be measured by doing a blood test.

An ultrasound scan can reveal cysts on your ovaries, a key symptom of PCOS.

There are also long-term effects of PCOS, such as type 2 diabetes, depression and changes in mood, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnoea.

There is also a small risk of cancer of the womb lining (endometrial cancer) in women who have fewer than 4 periods a year for many years.

How is PCOS Diagnosed?

PCOS is usually diagnosed when you have 2 of the following 3 symptoms:

  • Irregular or infrequent periods
  • an ultrasound scan showing follicles in your ovaries
  • blood test showing high levels of testosterone

If you are concerned that your symptoms may be due to PCOS, then a simple at home blood test is a good way of checking your hormone balance. Our PCOS test can be done at home, and you’ll have results in 2 working days. Our expert endocrinologist, Dr Nicky Keay, will review the results and add comments should any of the results be out of range for your age.

If your results show you may have PCOS, then we’ll suggest you set up an appointment with your GP. You’ll be able to access your results whenever you need them through our personalised app, allowing you to share them with your GP for further discussion.

Your GP may want to rule out other causes of your symptoms before they diagnose you, such as thyroid issues.

We’ve also put together a quick quiz for you to check your symptoms. It won’t be able to diagnose you with PCOS, but it’s helpful in highlighting if your symptoms are related to PCOS and what to do next.

PCOS Symptom Checker

Are your periods irregular or infrequent (more than 35 days between periods)?

Do you have unwanted hair growth? (excessive hair growth around the face, chest, back or buttocks)

Do you have hair loss or thinning on your head?

Do you have consistently bad skin? (oily skin or acne)

Do you have difficulty controlling your weight?

Are you experiencing fertility issues? (difficulty conceiving)

How is PCOS treated

Each symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome has a different effect on your body, so there are several ways to combat them. However, the treatment for PCOS will depend on a range of factors, including your age and how severe your symptoms are.

Your GP may advise a lifestyle change, such as a healthier diet and more exercise. PCOS can cause you to become insulin resistant, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Exercising helps to reduce weight which can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and help ease your symptoms, as well as helping your body to regulate insulin more effectively.

If you are wanting to start a family then there is medication available that will encourage ovulation. If you aren’t trying to conceive, your GP may recommend birth control to help regulate your cycles and lower androgen levels.

Diabetes medication can also help by lowering androgen levels, slowing hair growth and lower insulin resistance.

You should consult your GP before making any changes to your lifestyle or taking any medication.

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Medically Reviewed
Dr Nicky Keay
Chief Medical Officer, BA, MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, MRCP.​
This article has been medically reviewed by Forth's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nicky Keay.
Nicky has extensive clinical and research experience in the fields of endocrinology and sport and exercise medicine. Nicky is a member of the Royal College of Physicians, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University and former Research Fellow at St. Thomas’ Hospital.
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