Not enough people know about PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, despite the fact that it affects about 5 to 10 percent of women in the U.S. PCOS is the cause of most ovulation problems. In women with PCOS, a hormonal imbalance interferes with the growth and release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation). For many women, irregular periods may be “normal” to them. Periods can be infrequent, last longer than a week, or be scant. If it has been this way your whole life, you may think nothing of it. But having irregular periods is one of the major symptoms of PCOS – the leading cause for infertility in women. PCOS is associated with an unfavorable cardio-metabolic profile of hyperlipidemia, obesity, and early-onset diabetes. And most women don’t give much thought to their periods as it relates to their fertility, being overweight, or risk for hypertension, elevated cholesterol, diabetes or metabolic syndrome disease later in life.
Symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular periods. This is the most common characteristic. Periods can be infrequent or prolonged. Keeping track of your periods will help your medical provider in assessing this.
- High androgen levels. A blood test can show if elevated levels of the hormone androgen can be affecting ovulation. Androgen is known as the male hormone, and excess levels in women can cause symptoms such as excess facial hair growth, hair thinning and loss, or acne.
- Polycystic ovaries. An ultrasound can be conducted to see if there are cysts in the ovaries – a side effect of PCOS. Not every woman with PCOS will exhibit cysts.
As many as 20 percent of U.S. childbearing-age women will have difficulty getting pregnant. A large percentage of these is due to PCOS. The good news is that ovulation problems such as PCOS can be corrected and are often easier to treat than other types of infertility. Most patients – as many as 85 percent – will be able to ovulate, and as many as 40 percent of those will conceive after taking hormone pills. If not, there are more advanced infertility treatments that can help a women with PCOS to conceive.
Even if you do not want to have children, if you are having irregular periods, you should talk with your medical provider about the possibility of PCOS. Your medical provider might recommend birth control pills to help regulate your hormones or non-hormone treatment. Untreated PCOS can have long-term consequences beyond infertility, such as endometrial cancer, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, so it is important to get your hormones in balance.
Being aware of your periods and having a discussion with your medical provider about what is “normal” can help prevent any long-term implications of PCOS, even if you are not trying to become pregnant. I know it does not sound like a fun conversation to have, but it might be one that saves you fertility frustrations down the road, or lessens your risk for major health conditions.