Fast Facts: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Across Your Lifespan

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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common hormonal disorders in women, affecting up to 1 in 10 women during their reproductive years. PCOS typically starts after your very first period; however, it’s often difficult to get a diagnosis as a teen since symptoms like acne and irregular periods can be overlooked as part of growing up. Instead, many women find out they have PCOS in their 20s and 30s, when they have problems getting pregnant and see a healthcare provider (HCP). Once you do get a diagnosis, there are steps you can take to improve your symptoms. Here’s what you need to know in order to manage PCOS through different stages of your life.

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a condition in which there is a hormonal imbalance. Normally, a woman’s body produces a small amount of a male sex hormone called androgen. But in PCOS, the body overproduces androgen. High levels of androgens can interfere with the ovulation process, meaning that if you have PCOS, your ovaries may be prevented from releasing an egg. Instead, you might develop small ovarian cysts.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

The symptoms of PCOS can be different depending on the person. You may have:

  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Heavy bleeding during your period
  • Acne on your face, chest or back
  • Oily skin
  • Excess hair on your face, chest or back (called hirsutism)
  • Hair loss or thinning hair

These symptoms may make you feel self-conscious, which is natural. However, it’s important to remember that treatments can help control symptoms and stop PCOS from getting worse.

Can you get pregnant if you have PCOS?

Some women with PCOS can
get pregnant with no problems. However, for many women, PCOS causes infertility. If you have PCOS and do get pregnant, you have a higher risk of complications during pregnancy. These can include:

In vitro fertilization may be an option for women with PCOS who have a hard time getting pregnant. Talk with your HCP about your options and what might be right for you.

What other health conditions can occur along with PCOS?

PCOS can cause health problems that affect your heart, such as:

  • Obesity. Weight gain is common in women with PCOS, because the condition makes insulin build up in your body. This can cause you to gain weight, especially around your stomach area, which in turn raises your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Diabetes. This can be another result of excess insulin in your body, and can lead to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Too much androgen can also cause diabetes.
  • Sleep apnea. If you have PCOS, sleep apnea, which causes pauses in your breathing as you sleep, can worsen problems like high blood pressure and diabetes, and increase your risk of heart disease.

How does PCOS change as you get older?

Women with PCOS who have gone through menopause have a higher risk of developing conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

These issues can happen because as women age, PCOS changes from a reproductive disorder into more of a metabolic disorder.

For women with PCOS,their androgen levels remain high or get even higher as their estrogen levels decrease. This can increase inflammation, which is a cause of many cardiovascular conditions.

What happens if PCOS is left untreated?

If left untreated, PCOS can lead to serious health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

The good news: There’s a lot you can do to help manage your symptoms and cut your risk of additional medical problems. These include:

  • Using hormonal birth control, which can help regulate your periods
  • Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise, which can lower your risk of heart disease
  • Using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which can get sleep apnea under control
  • Talking to a mental health professional to help relieve stress and learn coping strategies

There’s no cure for PCOS, but you can manage your symptoms and reduce your risk for other health conditions. Talk to your HCP about your treatment options.

This resource was created with support from Sumitomo Pharma.

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