Concept polycystic ovary syndrome, PCOS. Women reproductive system.

Do I Have PCOS? Here’s How to Know

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age. According to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), around 10% of women aged 15 to 44 could be affected. So how do you know if you’re in that ten? Well, as we do with any uncharted territory, we look to the signs.

Marked by an overproduction of male hormones that can interfere with one’s reproductive system and metabolism, PCOS has many symptoms that can act as indicators you may have the condition. Though some of the disorder’s common symptoms, like migraines, mood swings, and fatigue, may actually signal something else entirely, there are a few specific symptoms that spell PCOS.

But first things first …

What exactly is PCOS?

Pardon us while we wax biological for a minute. Typically, ovulation results in the monthly discharge of a mature egg from a sac in the ovary. With PCOS, however, many fluid-filled sacs grow inside the ovaries, hosting undischarged eggs. And because the eggs never reach their ovulation stage, estrogen and progesterone levels dip, while amounts of androgens (male hormones such as testosterone) rise.

So, translation: The ovaries host several cysts (hence the name: polycystic) filled with immature eggs, throwing one’s hormone levels, and therefore menstrual cycle, out of whack.

So how is it diagnosed then?

While physicians are still rather stumped at what causes the syndrome (is it genes? is it insulin resistance?), they do know how to diagnose PCOS. Remember those signs we spoke of earlier?

If you have two of the three main criteria for PCOS, your doctor will likely diagnose you with the condition. Those three criteria include high androgen levels, menstrual irregularity, and ovarian cysts (discussed more below). Tools such as pelvic exams, ultrasounds, and blood tests can offer further evidence of the condition.

What are those three main criteria again?

As mentioned above, if you have two of the three following criteria, you might have PCOS.

High androgen levels: The ovaries produce all types of hormones, some female, some male. However, when there are super-high levels of androgen hormones, the male kind, PCOS might be behind the excess.

Menstrual irregularity: As the condition messes with the levels of hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle, skipped periods, extra-heavy flow, or abnormal cycles could all be explained with a PCOS diagnosis.

Ovarian cysts: Solid or filled with fluid, an ovarian cyst is a sac that forms abnormally in or on the ovary. It can cause irregularities not limited to reproductive activity and can also be painful.

Are there any other symptoms of PCOS?

Indeed, there are. Let’s break them down now …

Acne: Anyone who’s been through puberty knows what acne is. But diving a bit deeper into the science, the primary male hormone testosterone is to thank for those breakouts, while PCOS is to thank for those high levels of testosterone.

Hair loss: Also referred to as female androgenic alopecia (FAGA), female pattern hair loss is the result of androgen hormones at play. You may be more familiar with the receding hairline common in men — this is similar; however, the follicle doesn’t die. So the hair may grow back.

Hirsutism: The opposite of FAGA, hirsutism is just a fancy word for excess hair growth. The condition, also the cause of high androgen levels, can result in coarse hair growth on the face, back, stomach, and chest. Roughly 70% to 80% of those with hirsutism will also be diagnosed with PCOS, according to really smart researchers.

Weight gain: Working in tandem with insulin resistance, an issue associated with PCOS, weight gain can be an unwanted side effect of the syndrome. On the flip side, losing weight might prove difficult, despite behavioral changes (diet, exercise, etc.). Research shows that over half of women with PCOS are overweight or obese.

Fertility issues: Science says, to make a baby, one must ovulate. But PCOS doesn’t play by the rules. Because the condition can result in less eggs being discharged from the ovaries and higher levels of the male hormone, PCOS is the number one cause of infertility in women, per UC San Diego Health.

Now that I know the symptoms, how do I treat them?

Dear friend, you’ve made it this far. You’ve educated yourself about PCOS, identified the symptoms, and are ready to act. Good for you. Because even though the symptoms of PCOS might not be the most pleasant, there is relief out there.

Fertility treatments can improve the chances of getting pregnant and having risk-free births. Diet and lifestyle tips from your physician can help with maintaining a healthy weight. And medical treatments, including birth control and metformin, can help get your cycle, well, back on cycle. Further, there are hair growth medicines to help regrow thinning hair and laser hair removal procedures to aid in nixing any unwanted hairs.

The idea here is if you have any or several of the symptoms we’ve laid out, don’t worry: PCOS is common, and it’s treatable. You are definitely not alone on this journey. Of course, the first step to finding relief is to make an appointment with your doctor. And then, just follow the signs.