If you suspect you may be a sufferer, here's what you need to know.
What is PCOS?
While normal ovaries contain harmless cysts, polycystic ovaries contain a large number that develop around the edge of the ovaries. These cysts can result in irregular periods or, in some cases, no periods at all. Sufferers often have a higher level of male hormones than normal.
What causes PCOS?
Though the exact cause of PCOS is as yet unknown, it is thought there could be a genetic link, as the condition often runs in families. Scientists also believe that a lack of sensitivity to insulin could play a role, as the body produces higher levels of the hormone, which in turn causes increased production and activity of male hormones. Therefore being overweight, which is known to increase the amount of insulin the body produces, could put you at a higher risk of developing PCOS, and many sufferers have a family history of diabetes and high cholesterol.
Because women with PCOS often fail to ovulate, irregular periods or no periods at all are the most common symptoms of the condition. As a result, many find it difficult to conceive.
Abnormal levels of male and female hormones may also cause excessive hair growth, thinning of the hair or hair loss, oily skin or acne, and weight gain. Many PCOS sufferers gain weight easily and find it difficult to lose weight. Long term, the condition can lead to an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which in turn can cause cardiovascular problems such as stroke and heart disease.
Some also develop a thickening and pigmentation of the skin, often around the neck, armpits, elbow and knuckles, or around the groin or breast. The physical symptoms of the condition can also cause depression, as many sufferers become withdrawn and isolate themselves because of their appearance.
Though there is no outright cure for PCOS, it is possible to manage the symptoms. Weight loss will almost certainly help, as it reduces the level of insulin, and therefore the level of the male hormone testosterone, that the body produces, improving the chances of ovulation.
Hormone treatment is often used to block the effects of male hormones, which may reduce symptoms such as excessive hair growth or hair loss, and help to control ovulation. The contraceptive pill is also sometimes recommended as it helps to induce regular periods, and fertility drug clomifene, which stimulates the ovaries, is commonly prescribed.
Standard treatments for the problems of unwanted hair or acne can also help, not only with the symptoms themselves, but with the depression and anxiety associated with such issues.
A surgical option, laparoscopic ovarian drilling (LOD), which helps to correct the body's hormone imbalance is sometimes offered to those who fail to respond to clomifene.
If you are struggling to cope with life as a PCOS sufferer, the UK charity Verity can provide help, advice and support.