Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common condition that affects the way a woman’s ovaries work, causing irregular periods, excess male hormones, and fluid-filled follicles to inflate your ovaries. It’s the most common endocrine female reproductive disorder, and yet the exact cause is unknown. Express.co.uk chatted to Dr. Helen O’Neill, CEO and Founder of Hertility Health, to find out the most common symptoms of PCOS and how to tell if you have it.
About one in every 10 women in the UK has PCOS, making it the most common reproductive condition in women.
Even though PCOS has such a high prevalence and impacts women’s lives severely, it’s estimated that for every 100 women with PCOS, nearly 85 cases are unrecorded or undiagnosed.
That’s why it’s so important to know the symptoms to ensure you understand what is normal and what isn’t, in order to get a diagnosis.
Women affected by PCOS often showcase a wide array of symptoms, and show significant differences between clinical, biochemical, and physical features, according to Dr O’Neill.
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but the main factor is thought to be an imbalance in our sex hormones.
Dr O’Neill said: “Androgens, sometimes known as the ‘male hormones’, play a role in male traits and reproductive activity.
“However, they are also important hormones found in women, with most women having small amounts of androgens such as testosterone.
“Women with higher than average levels of androgen – a condition known as ‘hyperandrogenism’ – can experience impacts in the process of ovulation, leading to excessive hair growth on parts of the body (face, chest, back etc), and causing acne, all of which are characteristic signs of PCOS.”
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PCOS has been found to be hereditary, so those who have an immediate relative who is affected by PCOS could be at a higher risk of developing it themselves.
Research suggests that while everybody is unique, there are trends in the symptoms and complications that arise due to certain reproductive health conditions.
PCOS is a condition in which the symptoms and severity differ in people from different ethnic backgrounds.
Dr O’Neill added: “Research has shown that PCOS is linked to serious metabolic syndrome issues and health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, high LDL (or bad) cholesterol, sleep apnea, endometrial cancer, and high blood pressure.
“PCOS affects women of colour more frequently than white women, as they have a higher morbidity and mortality rate due to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
Up to one in 10 people with ovaries in the UK will suffer from PCOS and hormonal imbalance, but more than half of these women have no symptoms.
It’s important to keep an eye out for the symptoms that suggest you may have PCOS, but getting tested for the condition is more important.
Dr O’Neill said: “Women are often told to ignore the very symptoms of diagnosis, having them disregarded and branded as ‘just women’s troubles’.
“As Hertility, we recognise the need for testing and treatment and are committed to understanding more about PCOS through our research.
“As everybody’s body is beautifully unique, it’s important that hormonal testing becomes the norm, giving women the power to make an informed decision and take action before it’s too late.”
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Irregular menstrual cycle (As PCOS affects ovulation, you could have irregular periods or stop having them altogether)
- Excessive hair growth on your face and body as a result of an androgen imbalance (this is called ‘hirsutism’)
- Skin problems due to androgen imbalance, such as acne on the face and body, skin darkening and skin tags
- Thinning hair or hair loss on the head
- Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- Poor mental health
- Fertility issues (PCOS is a leading cause of female infertility because it affects our ovulation)
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Diagnosing PCOS is a complex process and unfortunately, there is no single test to confirm a result.
If someone is experiencing PCOS symptoms and seeks medical advice, a doctor will usually review their medical history (including menstrual periods, weight changes & family history) before running hormonal blood tests and an ultrasound examination to check for signs of small cysts.
Hertility Health’s PCOS package, on the other hand, includes a clinically validated at-home test, which tests a range of hormones and metabolites that are associated with PCOS, to understand what it means for every individual user.
The founder Dr O’Neill said: “It will test a range of hormones to assess the functioning of women’s menstrual cycle and help pinpoint any causes of irregularities, as well as estimate ovarian reserve and analyse the follicles in ovaries which are often affected in cases of PCOS, causing the characteristic symptoms.”
How can PCOS be treated?
While there is, unfortunately, no cure for PCOS, it can be treated.
All treatments are aimed at managing and reducing the symptoms of the condition, Dr O’Neill explained.
The expert said: “Those experiencing PCOS can treat their condition to ease their symptoms, even to the extent that they become unnoticeable and they can lead their life normally.
“Bespoke personalised treatment plans, which are usually a combination of medication and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, a healthy diet and regular exercise regime are normally the best way to go.
“It’s the minor tweaks in health and lifestyle choices that can make a major difference – it can induce ovulation and improve fertility, it can significantly reduce spots and acne scars and it can reduce unwanted hair growth.”