How much do you know about polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)? Unless you’ve been diagnosed, the answer is likely to be not very much.
This month is PCOS Awareness Month and new research has revealed that half of UK women can’t identify the main symptoms, despite its health risks.
The survey, conducted by Livi, the digital healthcare provider, asked 1,000 women about the most common signs of the hormonal condition.
The complex disorder causes elevated levels of sex hormones and affects 8-13% of women and people with uteruses globally. In the long term, it can lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and uterine cancer.
However, the majority of women don’t recognise potential symptoms of PCOS.
When asked to identify the signs, almost half failed to select irregular periods (47%) and around two-thirds didn’t pick excessive hair growth (63%) and weight gain (67%).
Acne is the least well-known PCOS symptom, with four out of five (80%) UK women not acknowledging it as a possible red flag.
Millennials (25-34-year-olds) are the least likely age group to know what to look for, despite most PCOS diagnoses happening when women are in their 20s or 30s.
The most common symptoms of PCOS include:
Irregular periods, long gaps between periods, or no periods
Excessive hair growth on the face, chest and abdomen
The PCOS symptoms that people are least aware of are:
1) Acne – 80% (didn’t identify as a symptom)
2) No periods – 77%
3) Long gaps between periods – 70%
4) Weight gain – 67%
5) Excessive hair growth – 63%
Many women discover they have PCOS when they see a GP about possible fertility issues.
Dr Elisabeth Rosen, lead GP at Livi and a specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics, explains the link: “As PCOS is a condition that causes problems with the release of eggs from the ovaries, it can make getting pregnant more difficult.
“Polycystic ovaries contain fluid-filled cysts known as follicles, in which eggs develop but usually never mature enough to ovulate. This affects the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular bleeding and problems ovulating.”
If you’re concerned about symptoms, Dr Rosen advises speaking to a doctor and says you can help speed up a diagnosis by keeping track of symptoms and your menstrual cycle.
“Keep track of your symptoms and menstrual cycle to help you spot patterns. You can use a cycle tracker app or a physical diary,” she says. “A doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and experiences and then refer you for a blood test to check your hormone levels. They will also request an ultrasound to check for signs that your ovaries are polycystic.”
Those who are aware of PCOS might also be led to believe myths about the condition. Dr Sumera Shahaney, head of clinical operations at health company Thriva, says the most common myth is that everyone with PCOS will put on weight.
“Some people with PCOS might find they put on weight easily, as well as find it really difficult to lose excess weight. This is as a result of insulin resistance – when you don’t respond to insulin properly. But not everyone with PCOS will see weight gain,” she explains.
“Another myth is that you can’t get pregnant when you have PCOS. Some people with PCOS have difficulty with fertility — but most people can still get pregnant if they would like to (and they are off all contraception).”
The main reason you might have difficulty getting pregnant is because of how PCOS affects ovulation, she adds.
“A hormonal imbalance might prevent the development and release of a mature egg. If this happens, you don’t ovulate and fertilisation can’t happen,” she says. “If a mature egg becomes fertilised, imbalanced hormone levels might also mean the lining of your womb doesn’t build up properly — so a fertilised egg can’t implant. There’s a range of fertility treatments for PCOS that are very effective, but not everyone with PCOS needs them to get pregnant.”
PCOS is based on three main features — irregular periods, excess androgens (some specific hormones), and polycystic ovaries. You only need two out of three symptoms for a PCOS diagnosis, which usually involves: answering questions about your menstrual cycle, a blood test to check your hormone levels and an ultrasound scan — to check if your ovaries have a lot of follicles in them.
If you’re concerned about your periods, you should seek advice from your GP. You should also keep a diary for at least three months to track your symptoms — this will help you notice any changes to your cycle.