Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Symptoms, causes and treatments

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects one in 10 women in the UK [Photo: Getty]

Even if you don’t have Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the hormone disorder that interferes with ovulation, often causing irregular periods and fertility issues, odds are you know somebody who does.

Figures from pcos-uk.org.uk suggest that one in 10 women have PCOS, which roughly translates into 3.5 million women in the UK, and makes it the most common female hormone condition.

According to the NHS Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that affects how a woman's ovaries work.

“Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition affecting the way women’s ovaries release eggs,” explains Mr Parijat Bhattacharjee, consultant gynaecologist at BMI The Clementine Churchill Hospital and BMI Syon Clinic in West London.

“It happens when the hormonal system is unbalanced, reducing the rate of ovulation or making it irregular. Because of this, it’s the most common cause of female infertility.”

READ MORE: Woman with excess body hair from PCOS ditches the razor and finds her body confidence

But for a condition that’s so common, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding PCOS. At the moment there’s no specific test for it, and scientists are yet to uncover a definitive explanation for why some women suffer from it, while others don’t.

So, in light of PCOS awareness month, this September, we've broken down everything you need to know about the condition.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

The NHS says there are three main signs and symptoms of PCOS

Irregular periods – which means your ovaries do not regularly release eggs (ovulation).

Excess androgen – high levels of "male" hormones in your body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair.

Polycystic ovaries – your ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) that surround the eggs (but despite the name, you do not actually have cysts if you have PCOS)

Though the condition impacts women in different ways, there are certain signs for women to be aware of.

“In terms of what to look out for, women with the condition sometimes have irregular or no periods, or experience extra facial or body hair because PCOS may be associated with relatively higher levels of ‘male’ hormones or their effect,” explains Mr Bhattacharjee.

“They could also find they are putting on weight, losing hair from their head or having acne or oilier skin than usual,” he adds.

PCOS is also associated with an increased risk of developing health problems in later life, such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol levels.

READ MORE: Woman battling early menopause goes on to have two miracle babies in 18 months

What causes PCOS?

Though it isn’t known exactly what causes PCOS, Mr Bhattacharjee says it can often run in families.

“If your mum or a family member has it then it’s more likely that you’ll have it,” he explains.

The condition is also related to abnormal hormone levels in the body, including high levels of insulin.

“If you have higher levels of the blood sugar-regulation hormone insulin - a situation sometimes seen in overweight people - or if your body has become less sensitive to the effects of insulin, then that’s an additional risk factor,” Mr Bhattacharjee adds.

What are the treatments for PCOS?

Many women may not be aware they even have PCOS, and there is currently no cure for the condition, but many treatments are available.

If you have PCOS and you're overweight, losing weight and eating a healthy balanced diet can help improve some symptoms of the condition.

“Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to manage the symptoms of PCOS,” Mr Bhattacharjee explains.

“A low-GI diet (based on foods such as brown rice, lean meat and fish) could be beneficial, as it helps the body respond to insulin.”

Many women with PCOS are concerned about the condition impacting their fertility and their ability to fall pregnant.

“Women who are overweight and trying to get pregnant will be advised to lose weight before trying fertility drugs or treatments,” Mr Bhattacharjee explains.

“Losing weight might be enough to restart ovulation, and fertility drugs are also most effective on women with a healthy body mass index.”

According to the NHS medications are also available to treat symptoms such as excessive hair growth, irregular periods and fertility problems.

If fertility medications are not effective, a simple surgical procedure called laparoscopic ovarian drilling (LOD) may be recommended.

This involves using heat or a laser to destroy the tissue in the ovaries that's producing androgens, such as testosterone.

“For women who do get pregnant, being a healthy weight helps to reduce the risk of complications throughout the pregnancy, including gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia,” Mr Bhattacharjee adds.