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What is PCOS?

Living Well with PCOS cover.

Click on the image above for some great ways to stay well with PCOS.
[pdf icon PDF 459K]

Polycystic (say: pah-lee-SIS-tik) ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormone imbalance that affects about 1 in 10 women. Girls as young as 11 can get PCOS. Do you have PCOS or common signs of PCOS? Read answers to commonly asked questions about PCOS below, or go straight to our Living Well With PCOS [pdf icon PDF 459K] guide and PCOS Fitness Worksheet [pdf icon PDF 504K].

What are the signs of PCOS? arrow top

Some common signs of PCOS include:

  • No periods, irregular periods, or very heavy periods
  • Pelvic pain
  • Extra hair on your face or other parts of your body, called “hirsutism” (say: HER-soo-tism)
  • Acne
  • Weight gain or trouble losing weight
  • Patches of dark, thick skin

If you have some of the above signs, you might have PCOS. There may be other reasons that you have one or more of these signs. See a doctor to find out the cause.

What causes PCOS? arrow top

No one knows the exact cause of PCOS. We do know that most of its symptoms come from problems with hormones, or natural body chemicals. Many girls with PCOS have too much insulin, a hormone that helps turn food into energy. Extra insulin can cause the darkened skin you may have on your neck, behind your knees, and other places.

Girls with PCOS also have extra androgens (say: AN-droh-jens). Although people often think of androgens as male hormones, females have them too. The extra androgen can lead to acne, excess body hair, weight gain, irregular periods, and other PCOS symptoms.

What tests are used to diagnose PCOS? arrow top

If you think you may have PCOS, it’s smart to see your doctor. And knowing what to expect during the appointment can make it less stressful. Here’s a list of some of what you might experience:

  • Questions from your doctor about your menstrual cycle and your health
  • Questions about whether other people in your family have similar symptoms
  • A physical examination that includes checking your skin and measuring your body mass index (BMI) and waist size
  • An examination of your genitals and possibly other parts of your reproductive system
  • A blood test to check your hormone levels and blood sugar levels

Does PCOS mean I have cysts on my ovaries? arrow top

The term “polycystic ovaries” means that there are lots of tiny cysts, or little sacs, on the ovaries. Some young women with PCOS have these cysts, but many others do not. Even if you have them, they are not harmful and do not need to be removed.

Will PCOS affect my ability to have children someday? arrow top

PCOS can cause problems with fertility (ability to get pregnant), but these problems usually can be treated. Treatments include medications to lower your insulin levels and to help you ovulate — or release an egg — each month. If you are concerned about your ability to get pregnant in the future, talk to your doctor.

Does PCOS put me at risk for other conditions? arrow top

If you have PCOS, you may be at higher risk of other health problems. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • A thickening of the endometrium (say: EN-doh-MEE-tree-uhm), or the lining of the uterus, which can eventually lead to cancer if you don’t get your period regularly

Getting your PCOS symptoms under control at an early age may help reduce these risks.

PCOS Worksheets cover.

Click on the image above for some cool tools for getting fit with PCOS.
[pdf icon PDF 504K]

What is the treatment for PCOS? arrow top

There is no cure for PCOS, but there are lots of ways to treat it. You may use a few of them or different ones at different times, depending on your symptoms.

Lifestyle changes are great ways to deal with PCOS. Eating well and staying active are important if you have PCOS. If you are overweight, losing weight may help with symptoms and may reduce health risks related to PCOS. Don’t smoke — or try to quit if you’ve started. Learn more in our guide. [pdf icon PDF 459K]

Birth control pills are a very common form of treatment for PCOS. Birth control pills contain hormones that can:

  • Correct the PCOS hormone imbalance
  • Lower the level of male hormones, which will lessen acne and hair growth
  • Regulate your menstrual periods
  • Lower the risk of endometrial cancer (which is higher in young women who don’t get their periods regularly)

Metformin is another medicine that may help with irregular periods and other PCOS issues. Metformin is sometimes used to help treat diabetes and may help keep your blood sugar closer to normal levels.

Anti-androgens work to reduce the effects of the male hormones on girls with PCOS. They can help clear up acne and hair growth. You can also deal with unwanted hair through electrolysis, hair removal creams, and laser treatment. There are lots of other options for treating acne.

What if I have worries about PCOS? arrow top

If you have been told you have PCOS, you may feel frustrated or sad. You may also feel relieved that at last there is an explanation for the problems you’ve been having. At the same time, having a diagnosis without an easy cure can be difficult.

Keep in mind that there are treatments for many of the problems that PCOS can cause. It is important to find a doctor who knows a lot about PCOS. You also want to feel comfortable with that person. Also, try to keep a positive attitude. And working on a healthy lifestyle, even when results take a long time, can help a lot, too!

Remember that you are not alone. Many girls with PCOS say that talking with a counselor about their concerns can be very helpful.

Having a healthy lifestyle through ups and downs is the first step to living well with PCOS!


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Content last reviewed April 15, 2014
Page last updated August 24, 2018