Her Check-Up: Let’s Talk About... PCOS
PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is a common condition for many women that disrupts your hormones and insulin. PCOS has been in the media spotlight in the past, with celebrity sufferers including Victoria Beckham and Jools Oliver opening up about their condition – but what exactly is it, and how does it affect your day-to-day life?
PCOS is believed to affect between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women in Ireland. The majority of women with PCOS start to notice symptoms in their late teens or twenties - this said some women may have had the condition since birth or even conception, with girls as young as 11 spotting symptoms of the conditions.
So, what should I be looking out for?
The symptoms of PCOS can vary from woman to woman. Some of the symptoms of PCOS include:
- Infertility because of not ovulating. In fact, PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility.
- Infrequent, absent, and/or irregular menstrual periods
- 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
- Patches of skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs that are thick and dark brown or black
- Skin tags — excess flaps of skin in the armpits or neck area
- Pelvic pain
- Anxiety or depression
- Sleep apnoea — when breathing stops for short periods of time while asleep
Those suffering with PCOS may also have a number of cysts on their ovaries. These will show on ultrasounds as dark blobs but are empty egg follicles, waiting for the right balance of sex hormones to come along and activate them.
How can I test for PCOS?
There is no single test to diagnose PCOS, but if your doctor is concerned that you have the condition, there are a number of steps to take for diagnosis:
Medical history - Your doctor will ask about menstrual periods, weight changes, and other symptoms. Try to keep a diary of any changes you notice which will help the doctor map your symptoms.
Physical exam - Your doctor will want to measure your blood pressure, your body mass index (BMI), and waist size. They will also check for areas of increased hair growth. You should try to allow the natural hair to grow for a few days before the visit as this will give them an idea of the full effects of the hormones on your body.
Pelvic exam - Your doctor might want to check to see if your ovaries are enlarged or swollen by the increased number of small cysts, so may request a pelvic exam. Be sure to talk through any concerns you may have with them before the test.
Blood tests – Again, your doctor may check hormone and glucose (sugar) levels in your blood. These readings will be done by a blood test.
Vaginal ultrasound (sonogram) - Your doctor may perform a test that uses sound waves to take pictures of the pelvic area. It might be used to examine your ovaries for cysts and check the lining of the womb. This lining may become thicker if your periods are not regular.
As with any health concerns, be sure to talk to a doctor or trained health professional if you are worried about persisting symptoms.
Image via WomensHealth.org
How can you cure PCOS?
Although, there is no cure for PCOS, symptoms can be treated.
Treatment goals are based on your symptoms, whether or not you want to become pregnant, and lowering your chances of getting heart disease and diabetes. Many women will need a combination of treatments to meet these goals.
Losing weight - Many women with PCOS are overweight or obese, which can cause health problems. You can help manage your PCOS by eating healthy and exercising to keep your weight at a healthy level.
This will also help lower the blood glucose levels and improve the body’s use of insulin.
Birth control medication - For women who don't want to get pregnant, birth control medication can:
- Control menstrual cycles
- Reduce male hormone levels
- Help to clear acne
Fertility medications - Lack of ovulation is usually the reason for fertility problems in women with PCOS. Consult a doctor for the best advice in fertility treatments for your condition and try keep an ovulation diary to help plan the most effective treatment to try for you.
Medicine for increased hair growth or extra male hormones – Women can become uncomfortable or embarrassed by increased hair growth. Check in with your doctor for treatment options if you find extra facial hair is making you self-conscious.
Always consult a doctor if you are concerned with your health care. If you are diagnosed with PCOS, would like more information on the condition or to speak with other women who are experiencing symptoms, visit PCOS Ireland for more information.