A Pregnant Pause: 8 Things Every Woman Should Know About PCOS

Are you having trouble getting pregnant? Do you have an onset of adult acne? Is your hair starting to fall out? Then you might just have some other signs of PCOS, too.

Polycystic (pah-lee-SIS-tik) ovary syndrome, commonly known as PCOS, affects as many as 5 million women in the United States. It is the result of a hormonal imbalance whereby the ovaries make more androgens than normal. Androgens are male hormones that females also make, and having higher than normal levels of these hormones affects the development and release of eggs during ovulation. In women with PCOS, mature eggs are not released from the ovaries, and instead become very small cysts inside the ovary.

I have PCOS. It was not until I had issues with infertility that it was discovered, but looking back the diagnosis makes a lot of sense. (That is a sentiment I have heard from several women who have it as well.) PCOS is actually the most common cause of female infertility. Since then I have come to know my own symptoms (such as severe pelvic pain) and take medicine to ease them.

Symptoms of PCOS can vary, and while there is no known cure - there are several treatment options available. Here is what you need to know about PCOS:

1. Causes

There is no one known cause of PCOS. Experts theorize that genetics can play a factor, though in my case that theory does not hold true.

A woman's level and resistance to insulin may also play a role in causing PCOS. Experts have found that many women with PCOS have too much insulin stored in their bodies because they have problems using it. Too much insulin in the body seems to increase the production of androgen, thus starting the hormonal imbalance that is PCOS.

Related: 25 powerful photos of women giving birth

2. Reproductive Symptoms and Concerns

Because of the high levels of androgens in the body, PCOS can result in reproductive issues, such as:

  • Cysts on the ovaries
  • Problems with ovulation
  • Pelvic pain
  • Infertility
  • Irregular or painful menstrual periods

3. Cosmetic Symptoms and Concerns

There are cosmetic symptoms of PCOS too, including:

  • Acne or oily skin
  • Weight gain, often around the waist
  • Issues with hair, such as: dandruff, thinning hair or hair loss
  • Excessive hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, or toes
  • Dark patches of skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs
  • Skin tags - excess flaps of skin in the armpits or neck area
  • Weight gain, often around the waist

4. Pregnancy Symptoms & Concerns

Many women (like myself) are diagnosed when they have fertility issues. However, there can also be issues arising from PCOS during pregnancy, such as:

  • Miscarriage
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Pregnancy-induced high blood pressure
  • Premature delivery

5. Long Term Symptoms and Concerns

Some of the other serious, more long-term concerns associated with PCOS are:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Sleep apnea
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Endometrial cancer

6. Tests

There is no single test to diagnose PCOS. If you or your doctor suspects that you may have PCOS, he or she will look at any or all of the following:

  • Medical history
  • Physical exam
  • Pelvic exam
  • Blood tests
  • Vaginal ultrasound (sonogram)

7. Treatment Options

Treatment options may vary depending on whether you are at an age or stage where pregnancy is an issue. Some people may also wish to treat the issues that happen as a result of PCOS, such as acne and hair loss.

Most healthcare practitioners will encourage following a healthy lifestyle, including:

  • limiting processed foods and high sugar foods
  • eating healthy meals with lean meats, vegetables and whole grains
  • engaging in regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise

8. Other Treatment Options

Other treatments for PCOS may include:

  • Birth control pills (for those who do not wish to be pregnant)
  • Progesterone pills (such as Provera)
  • Diabetes medications (such as Metformin, which is also known as Glucophage)
  • Fertility medications (for those who wish to become pregnant)
  • "Ovarian drilling" surgery (for those who wish to become pregnant who have not responded to fertility medications)
  • Anti-androgen medicines (such as Spironolactone or Finasteride)

Again, please note that treatment options will vary from person-to-person and all treatment options should be discussed with a healthcare practitioner.

Sources: Womens Health, National Institutes of Health

-By Jessica Cohen

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