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PCOS and the Pandemic: Living with PCOS and COVID-19

Even though there seems to be light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 32 million Americans and taken the lives of 570,000 more is likely not going anywhere anytime soon. And because certain health factors associated with PCOS—including type 2 diabetes, obesity, hyper-inflammation, and high blood pressure—are also linked to more severe cases of COVID-19, it’s smart to know the risks out there, and how to mitigate them.

PCOS, a chronic condition that affects 1 in 10 women of reproductive age, is one of the most common causes of infertility in women and is usually accompanied by irregular menstrual cycles, imbalanced hormones, weight gain, and more. Compound all of that with a virus and its mutating variants that also have potential long-term side effects, and it’s enough to confuse and alarm anyone. But we’re here to help. Ahead, what women with PCOS should know amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Women with PCOS are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

According to Medscape Medical News, those with PCOS “face an almost 30% increased risk for COVID-19,” compared to women who don’t have the condition. Over in the United Kingdom, researchers, whose results were published in the European Journal of Endocrinology, found that women with PCOS are at a higher risk than those who don’t have PCOS. Digging a little deeper during the first wave of the pandemic, the researchers found that there’s a 51% increased risk that women with PCOS will contract the virus.

In addition to being high risk for contracting COVID-19, U.K. researchers found that women with PCOS are also a more overlooked group. Even before the pandemic, women with PCOS had raised concerns about fragmented, patchy health care; going undiagnosed; interacting with clinical care that doesn’t seem to fully understand the syndrome. So now, with an enduring pandemic, what is one to do?

Those with PCOS should adhere to CDC guidelines.

Because women with PCOS are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and perhaps experiencing more severe symptoms of the virus, including hospitalization, those with PCOS are encouraged to follow protocols set in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Current recommendations include wearing a mask, avoiding large crowds, forgoing nonessential travel, and getting vaccinated as soon as possible. For more CDC guidance, click here.

If you haven’t been vaccinated just yet, or don’t plan on getting vaccinated at all, the safest bet for women with PCOS is to continue adhering to 2020’s most celebrated pastime: social distancing. Staying home alone has its benefits, but being the social creatures human beings are, the act of isolation can take a toll on one’s mental health. Which brings us to our next topic …

Though physical health is important, mental health should also be prioritized.

Physical symptoms of PCOS—hirsutism, acne, irregular periods, etc.—are most often top of mind when it comes to PCOS. But there’s a mental aspect of the condition that needs special attention too. As women with PCOS are more likely to experience anxiety (about 27% compared to 19%) and depression (around 50% compared to 40%) than those without PCOS, being confined to one’s home in the name of social distancing can get wearing on one’s mental state.

As part of the aforementioned U.K. study, Dr. Krish Nirantharakumar, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, said, “The risk of mental health problems including low self-esteem, anxiety and depression is significantly higher in women with PCOS, and advice on strict adherence to social distancing needs to be tempered by the associated risk of exacerbating these underlying problems.”

Luckily, there are ways one can adhere to COVID-19 safety guidance and still manage their symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Technology in the form of FaceTime, Zoom, and video chats are available when you need some face-to-face time with loved ones, rather than just hearing their voices.

Though not usually a first-line treatment for women with PCOS and depression, medication in the form of antidepressants could be suggested. A chat with your doctor concerning weight gain and the potential side effects on your blood glucose will have to be considered before prescribing.

And then there are good, old-fashioned lifestyle changes that can make a difference, and ease your stressors. Practices like mediation and yoga can help calm the mind, while diet and exercise help combat anxiety and depression from within. Again, talk with your doctor about a plan that works for you and your symptoms. And speaking of doctor, due to the ongoing pandemic, those offices might still be closed. The next best thing? Virtual treatment.

Get treated virtually.

Throughout the pandemic, telehealth has emerged a hero as the best alternative to in-person health care—a way to lower the exposure to contagions but still offer patients the care they need. And for those with PCOS, which requires ongoing treatment, telehealth can be an attractive, convenient option. Because PCOS can sometimes be diagnosed by symptoms alone—identified by irregular periods and an imbalance of androgen hormones—a simple chat online with your doctor can lead to the treatment you need.

As for mental health, talk therapy and counseling have been proven to be one of the best treatments for depression and anxiety. Both of which can easily be done virtually. Further telehealth options for those seeking mental health treatment for PCOS include mobile health apps, live video chats, online doctor visits, and texting or emailing with your physician.