Women's Health
June 29, 2017

What women need to know about polycystic ovarian syndrome

by polycyctic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovarian syndrome — or PCOS — can cause issues with fertility; treatment depends on the desire to become pregnant.


Polycystic ovarian (or ovary) syndrome is a common hormonal disorder, affecting 5 to 10 percent of women. Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome vary from person to person, but usually include:

  • irregular periods;
  • problems with weight;
  • male pattern hair growth;
  • acne;
  • and difficulty achieving pregnancy.

The ovaries may also look like they contain several small cysts, or follicles, on ultrasound. This disorder affects both adolescents and adult women.

How is PCOS diagnosed?

Diagnosis is made based on a combination of patient symptoms, physical exam findings and laboratory tests. There is no one single test used to diagnose. Women usually report infrequent periods and may report coarse hair growth on the face, breasts, abdomen and thighs. Sometimes they are experiencing acne and hair loss from the head as well. Routine laboratory tests are drawn to check for high glucose, cholesterol and male hormones.

A variety of less common disorders can present similarly, so it is routine to obtain laboratory tests, and sometimes a urine collection, to exclude other disorders.

What are the associated risks?

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome are more likely to be overweight, or obese. They are at an increased lifetime risk of developing pre-diabetes, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This elevates the risk of developing heart disease and of having a heart attack.

Women with PCOS typically do not ovulate regularly. This can cause problems with fertility. Over time, this also increases the risk of acquiring pre-cancerous and cancerous changes to the lining of the uterus. A biopsy of the lining of the uterus may be recommended to check for these changes.

What’s included in polycystic ovarian syndrome treatment?

Treatment is determined by whether or not the patient wants to become pregnant. For women who do not, birth control pills are often used to regulate periods and to help with abnormal hair growth and acne. Additional medications or creams may be recommended. If the woman does want to become pregnant, fertility medications may be prescribed. Oral medications, such as Clomiphene citrate, or Letrozole, are often tried first and can help with ovulation.

A medication called Metformin may be prescribed to lower insulin levels. This can also regulate periods over time. Weight loss can also help with ovulation and regulation of periods.

Treatment should be modified according to an individual patient’s needs. Talk with your provider to learn more.


This post was written by Michelle Roach, M.D., who leads the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. This program offers comprehensive, personalized care to help you manage your PCOS symptoms. Our care team also offers health screenings for women with PCOS to reduce your risk of developing other health problems. 

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Do you think you might have polycystic ovary syndrome? Or are you having difficulty conceiving? Find out more by scheduling an appointment at the Vanderbilt Center for Women’s Health: (615) 343-5700.

3 thoughts on “What women need to know about polycystic ovarian syndrome”

  1. Loretta says:

    I’ve had polycystic ovary syndrome for as long as I can remember and I fit every description stated above. I just can’t get help with it or relief of the pain I have at times that are almost unbearable. I hate being fat but I don’t wanna constantly wear a t shirt that says…..I’m Not Fat I Just Have PCOS. I would love to be normal if it exist. I’ll never know but at least I know what’s wrong with me.

  2. Samanth T says:

    I have it too. I hate it. I have a cyst just about every other month. Periods are always painful. I’ve got abdomen hair and acne. It does suck but keep your head up honey. 🙂

  3. Polycystic survivor says:

    I could write a book about PCOS. At 16, I was told to live a life without children. When I was . In my early twenties, I saw an endocrinologist,who put me on a regimen of steroids. I took them for many months. Before I was 15 my doctor put me on birth control pills. Yes I had hair on my face and neck, even my upper lip. I was about 30 pounds overweight. Luckily for me I meet a wonderful man, who said,we’re not sure you can’t have children. They don’t know for sure. Guess what the Doctor’s were wrong. I have 2 miracles as my doctors told me. I became a diabetic at 45, textbook classic. I have fought my weight my entire life, I like to eat. Over the last 5 years I have lost 100 pounds. I didn’t gain it over night. Each day is a struggle. Syndrome X is real and for those of us predisposed to pcos, we have to work harder. PCOS is inherited, can be from either parent. Sad but true. You may as well save your breath and keep it to yourself instead Of Telling Someone You Have A Hormone Imbalance. No One Believes It. However It Is Real. Only A Person Who Has Dealt With It For 50 Years Would Understand. Lucky For Me I Did And Do Still Have Beautiful Skin Even At 63. Having PCOS is tough.

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