What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

Read on for straight talk about the health condition that can affect women of childbearing age.


Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), is a condition that’s caused by an imbalance in a woman’s reproductive hormones, which include testosterone. As a result, PCOS creates problems in the ovaries that may affect overall health and appearance.

What causes PCOS?

The exact cause of PCOS isn’t known, but most experts think genetics play a role, along with high levels of androgens.

And what exactly are androgens? They’re hormones that are sometimes called “male hormones” — but you have small amounts of them, too. All women do. Testosterone is one of the main androgens. These hormones control how male traits develop — for instance, hair growth or male-pattern baldness.

You can live a full life while managing PCOS. 

If you have more androgens than normal, it can keep your ovaries from releasing an egg during each menstrual cycle. PCOS can also cause:

  • Unwanted hair growth
  • Acne
  • Dark patches of skin
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Irregular menstrual cycles

If you have PCOS, you may also have a greater risk of other health problems, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Problems with mood such as depression and anxiety
  • Sleep apnea
  • Stroke

Who develops PCOS?

Five percent to 10% of women between 15 to 44 years old are most often diagnosed with PCOS. Those are primary childbearing years, and it’s between ages 20 and 30 when most women who have trouble getting pregnant learn they have PCOS. Any race and ethnicity can get PCOS. Other risk factors for having PCOS include:

  • Obesity
  • A close relative (mother, sister or aunt) with PCOS
  • A condition causing insulin-resistance, like Diabetes

How is PCOS diagnosed?

While there’s no single test that can diagnose PCOS, talk with your doctor about your health history. Your doctor may also do a physical exam and different tests including:

  • Pelvic exam. This may show signs of extra male hormones such as an enlarged clitoris or enlarged or swollen ovaries.
  • Blood tests. Your doctor can use these tests to test the androgen hormone levels, including testosterone. Because other health problems can be mistaken for PCOS, you may also have your blood checked for thyroid disease and diabetes.  
  • Pelvic ultrasound (sonogram). Sound waves are used to check your ovaries for cysts and the lining of your uterus or womb (endometrium).

Your doctor may diagnose you with PCOS if you have at least two of these symptoms:

  • Irregular or absent periods
  • Signs of high androgen levels such as thinning hair on your scalp and extra hair growth on your face and body.
  • Higher-than-normal levels of androgens in your blood
  • A number of cysts on one or both ovaries

What about PCOS and getting pregnant?

A quick explanation of the ovulation process can help answer that: During the normal process of ovulation, one or more eggs are released during your monthly cycle. Most of the time, this happens two weeks after your menstrual period starts.

Having PCOS doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant. It means you and your doctor need to discuss lifestyle changes that may help. 

When it comes to PCOS, your eggs aren’t always released and may stay in your ovaries with a small amount of fluid, also called a cyst, around them. Having problems releasing eggs because of PCOS can cause issues with getting pregnant and so do high levels of androgens such as testosterone.

Having PCOS doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant. It means you and your doctor need to discuss lifestyle changes that may help. Studies show that making changes to your lifestyle —such as losing weight — can help you start ovulating again and improve pregnancy rates for women who have PCOS. You can also track your ovulation cycles to learn the best times you could get pregnant.

Other treatment choices may include medicines and surgery.

What are some ways to handle PCOS symptoms?

We know it can be hard to deal with some of the more obvious signs of PCOS. Here are steps to keep in mind that may help with those symptoms:

  • Lose weight. Eating more healthy foods and getting more exercise can help relieve symptoms caused by PCOS. Not only that, if you lose weight, you may be able to improve your blood glucose levels, which may in turn help your hormones reach normal levels.
  • Remove hair. You can find hair removal products at drugstores. Or ask your doctor about a procedure such as laser hair removal. (Keep in mind that this may not be covered by health insurance.)
  • Slow hair growth. There are prescription skin treatments that can help slow down how fast new hair grows in unwanted places.
  • Treat acne. PCOS can cause cystic acne, which is much more severe and painful than normal acne and can make you feel self-conscious, too. Talk to your doctor about the prescription medicines you may be able to take.

You can live a full life while managing PCOS. Sure, you’ll need to make some changes to do that, including following up with your doctor on a regular basis. To reduce further complications from other health problems that you may be diagnosed with alongside PCOS, it’s important to monitor your health more closely. But keep in mind that most women with PCOS not only cope, they thrive. 

Now that you know more about PCOS, you may be wondering if you should see a doctor. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.







5 ways to keep estrogen levels in line, naturally

Living with Type 2 Diabetes

Women’s Health: Polycystic ovary syndrome

Endometriosis: When Cramps Stop Being Normal

The 5 Most Common Misconceptions About Pregnancy

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: Treatments to Relieve Symptoms of PCOS

10 Tips for Becoming a Healthy Meal Prep Expert

5 Ways Women and Men Can Balance Their Estrogen Levels

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.



About the Author

The Providence Women's Health team is committed to providing useful and actionable insights, tips and advice to ensure women of all types can live their healthiest lives.

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