One in five

20% of women in the UK suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects one in five women in the UK - that’s 20% - and it's a leading cause of fertility problems in women. PCOS the most common female hormone condition and manifests differently in each woman. It can be devastating to a woman’s self-esteem and quality of life.

PCOS is a common hormone condition that describes a number of symptoms including irregular periods, excessive hair growth on the face and body, weight gain, oily skin and acne, thinning hair and hair loss (from the scalp), weight gain and difficulty conceiving. It was first discovered in 1935 by Doctors Stein and Leventhal, so for many years it was known as the Stein-Leventhal syndrome.

The cause is not definitively known, but the condition is related to abnormal hormone levels and is thought to be hereditary. Some professionals have highlighted excess weight as a contributing factor in PCOS, as women who weight above a healthy BMI have an increased risk of hormonal abnormalities and a lower rate of ovulation.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

PCOS affects women in different ways, so not all women will have all these symptoms. Some women may have only mild symptoms, while others may have a range of more severe symptoms. Women will commonly begin to notice symptoms of PCOS between their late teens and early 20s. Symptoms include:

  • Irregular periods or a complete lack of periods
  • Irregular ovulation or no ovulation at all
  • Reduced fertility – difficulty becoming pregnant
  • Unwanted facial or body hair (hirsutism)
  • Oily skin, acne
  • Thinning hair or hair loss from the scalp (alopecia)
  • Weight problems – being overweight, rapid weight gain, difficulty losing weight
  • A raised risk of miscarriage
  • Depression and mood changes.

How is PCOS diagnosed?

PCOS is usually diagnosed by your GP. They will carry out blood tests at a suitable time during the menstrual cycle to determine whether or not you are affected. Once the diagnosis has been made, options for management can then be discussed. If treatment is needed your GP or specialist may prescribe you medication and/or may recommend certain lifestyle changes. A healthy diet is crucial to aid insulin regulation, as women with PCOS are often resistant to the effects of insulin, therefore have more in their blood. For more complicated cases, you may be referred to a professional specialising in female reproductive health, such as a gynaecologist or endocrinologist.

Treating PCOS

Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS, nor is there one treatment. Treatment is therefore aimed at managing individual symptoms. The good news is that many of the symptoms and the health risks can be managed successfully via a combination of medical assistance, good nutrition, exercise and adopting a generally healthy lifestyle. This will also help reduce your long-term health risks.

Long-term risks

PCOS can, over time, increase the risks of developing health problems later in life and is a common cause of female infertility - with many women discovering the condition when trying to conceive. Women with PCOS are also at an increased risk of developing:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Sleep apnoea
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Mood swings and depression.

PCOS may be classed as a disability depending on the adverse effects on the activities of daily living. Cover under the disability provisions of the Equality Act is not diagnosis dependent except in cancer/MS and HIV, where automatic coverage is given irrespective of the effects of the condition. There are some excellent resources - check out Verity, the PCOS charity for more information.