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What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal condition affecting women in their reproductive years.

Around one in seven women have PCOS which can cause a range of symptoms such as; irregular periods (menstruation), skin and hair changes and for some women, difficulties getting pregnant.

PCOS is mainly due to a hormonal imbalance rather than a disease of the ovaries.

If the hormone levels associated with PCOS can be reduced or controlled, the ovaries can often function normally.

Overall, women with PCOS have a similar number of children as women without PCOS.
  • What causes PCOS?

    The causes of PCOS are not fully understood. Genetics (family inheritance), hormones that are increased during development in the uterus before birth, and lifestyle factors all play a role.

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    Women with PCOS are 50 percent more likely to have a mother, aunt or sister with PCOS than women without PCOS.


    The symptoms and signs of PCOS occur because of an imbalance of two hormones: Insulin and Androgen. 

  • What are the symptoms of PCOS?

    PCOS is called a syndrome which means it is characterised by a range of symptoms, which differ widely between individuals. They affect three main areas: reproductive, metabolic and psychological health.

    PCOS symptoms vary not only between individuals, they also vary at different stages of life.

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    There are there are a number of symptoms associated with PCOS, and effective treatments for managing them.

    The number of symptoms women experience varies among individuals. They can include:

    • periods (menstruation) that are irregular (more or less often than monthly)
    • no periods or less than eight periods per year
    • periods with heavy or light bleeding
    • excess hair on face, stomach, back
    • loss of hair on the top of the head
    • acne (pimples) that may be very severe
    • weight gain
    • difficulties getting pregnant
    • some health challenges during pregnancy
    • emotional challenges (depression and/or anxiety)
    • increased risk of diabetes
    • sexual health challenges
    • low self-esteem
    • poor body image
    • impact on the quality of life.
  • How is PCOS diagnosed?

    If women have two of these three criteria, it is likely that they will be diagnosed with PCOS:

    Diagram of PCOS diagnosis criteria

    If you have other conditions that can appear similar to PCOS, they need to be checked by your doctor and excluded before a PCOS diagnosis can be confirmed.

    PCOS is difficult to diagnose in women taking the contraceptive pill as this medication alters hormone levels. If an accurate diagnosis is needed, women need to stop taking the pill for three months beforehand (and use a different method of contraception during this time).

  • Tests for diagnosing PCOS

    A doctor may order a blood test, and maybe an ultrasound.

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    A blood test will measure the level of male type hormones (androgens, also called testosterone) and exclude other conditions.

    Ultrasound is only needed for women who don’t have criteria 1) and 2). A vaginal ultrasound takes a picture of the ovaries. If there are 20 or more follicles (fluid filled sacs) on either ovary, this indicates PCOS.

  • Fertility issues for women with PCOS

    Overall, women with PCOS have a similar number of children as women without PCOS. While 30 percent of women with PCOS have no problem, around 70 percent have some difficulties getting pregnant.

    For women who may have difficulties becoming pregnant, starting earlier in life, if possible, offers more time to try a range of fertility treatment options.

Ricci-Jane's PCOS story

Ricci-Jane and her partner were told they wouldn't have a baby without IVF. Ricci-Jane had PCOS, and a stressful new job and poor eating habits had taken their toll on her body. She talks about getting 'baby-fit' and conceiving without IVF.

  • Medical treatment options

    Most women with PCOS are likely to become pregnant with medical support.

    Your GP can refer you to a fertility specialist for specific treatments. There are a range of medications that can be very effective in helping women with PCOS to become pregnant. If these don’t work, injections or minor ovarian surgery may help.

    If women are an older age or an unhealthy weight, this can affect their chances of a successful pregnancy.

Page created on: 29/08/2018 | Last updated: 13/04/2024

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