Isn’t it interesting how four little letters can change your life? That’s what PCOS has done — changed my life in a personal, dramatic way. (Notice I didn’t say negatively or positively!)
September is PCOS Awareness Month, and I’m glad there seems to be more and more information and awareness being spread about this disorder. Whether you have PCOS yourself, or whether you are a loved one supporting a woman with PCOS, thank you for taking the time to educate yourself today.
What is PCOS?
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (aka Stein-Leventhal Syndrome), and is one of the most common hormonal endocrine disorders that can affect a woman’s:
- Menstrual cycle
- Ability to have children
- Blood vessels
How do you get diagnosed?
PCOS has been recognized and diagnosed for 75 years. There are many signs and symptoms that a woman may experience, but PCOS can’t be diagnosed with one test alone. Women with PCOS typically have:
- High levels of androgens (Sometimes called male hormones, though all females make them)
- Missed or irregular periods
- Many small cysts (fluid-filled sacs) in their ovaries in a “string of pearls” pattern
Early diagnosis of PCOS is important as it has been linked to an increased risk for developing several medical risks.
How does PCOS affect a woman’s body and life?
Women with PCOS may suffer from:
- Infertility (not able to get pregnant) because of not ovulating. PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility.
- Infrequent, absent, and/or irregular menstrual periods
- Hirsutism — increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, or toes
- Cysts on the ovaries
- Acne, oily skin, or dandruff
- Weight gain or obesity, usually with extra weight around the waist
- Male-pattern baldness or thinning hair
- Dark patches of skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs
- Skin tags
- Pelvic pain
- Anxiety or depression
- Sleep apnea
What are the associated health risks?
Women with PCOS have greater chances of developing several serious health conditions, including life-threatening diseases:
- More than 50% of women with PCOS will have diabetes or pre-diabetes (impaired glucose tolerance) before the age of 40.
- The risk of heart attack is 4 to 7 times higher in women with PCOS than women of the same age without PCOS.
- Women with PCOS are at greater risk of having high blood pressure.
- Women with PCOS have high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Women with PCOS can develop sleep apnea. This is when breathing stops for short periods of time during sleep.
- Women with PCOS are also at risk for endometrial cancer. Irregular menstrual periods and lack of ovulation cause women to produce the hormone estrogen, but not the hormone progesterone. Progesterone causes the endometrium (lining of the womb) to shed each month as a menstrual period. Without progesterone, the endometrium becomes thick, which can cause heavy or irregular bleeding. Over time, this can lead to endometrial hyperplasia (when the lining grows too much) and cancer.
How prevalent is PCOS?
- 5-10% of women of childbearing age are affected by PCOS, with less than 50% of women diagnosed.
- PCOS is responsible for 70% of infertility issues in women who have difficulty ovulating.
- Post menopausal women can also suffer from PCOS.
- Studies have shown that approximately 40% of patients with diabetes and/or glucose intolerance between the ages of 20-50 have PCOS.
- Some studies found that if a mother has PCOS, there is a 50% chance that her daughter will have PCOS.
How does PCOS affect a woman while pregnant?
The good news is: pregnancy is possible for women with PCOS. However, pregnant women with PCOS appear to have higher rates of:
- Gestational diabetes
- Pregnancy-induced high blood pressure (preeclampsia)
- Premature delivery
Babies born to women with PCOS have a higher risk of spending time in a neonatal intensive care unit or dying before, during, or shortly after birth.
Is PCOS treatable?
Because there is no cure for PCOS, medical management and lifestyle modification are the best ways to treat the syndrome. Medical treatment should be based on symptoms and goals. Treatment can depend on whether a woman is considering pregnancy, is menopausal, or does not want to conceive. Some options include:
- Birth control pills
- Fertility treatments
- Lifestyle modification
- Weight loss
PCOS is undoubtedly a battle, no matter how severe or mild your case is. All the blogs in the world can be helpful, but are not substitutes for a medical evaluation! Make sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor with your concerns about PCOS. Be your own advocate!