- PCOS symptoms include excess hair growth, weight gain, acne, darkened skin, and thinning hair.
- Women with PCOS may also experience irregular periods because of disrupted ovulation.
- It’s important to manage PCOS symptoms to reduce the risk of complications like sleep apnea.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition where the ovaries produce excess male sex hormones called androgens, which causes hormonal imbalances that can lead to a range of symptoms.
As many as one in ten women experience PCOS, which can cause symptoms like missed periods and weight gain. PCOS symptoms can start any time after puberty and over time, it can lead to serious complications like diabetes or heart disease.
As far as the symptoms go, not all women experience them the same. As a result, PCOS can go undiagnosed in as many as 75% of people with the condition, which is why it’s important for women to understand the signs of the condition.
Common symptoms of PCOS
PCOS can cause several telltale symptoms, including:
- Irregular periods, including missing periods, getting your period every two or three weeks, or not getting your period at all.
- Thinning hair on your scalp.
- Excess hair growth on your face and chin.
- Weight gain and difficulty losing weight.
- Acne in your face, chest, and upper back.
- Darkened skin in areas like neck creases, underneath the breasts, and the groin region.
To see if you have PCOS, your doctor may also perform a physical exam and take blood tests to check your levels of androgens.
People who are diagnosed with PCOS, typically have at least two of the following:
- High levels of androgen hormones like testosterone
- Enlarged ovaries with many tiny cysts around the edges
- Irregular ovulation and menstrual cycle
The causes of PCOS
Experts don’t know the exact cause of PCOS, “but it’s likely a mixture of hormonal, genetic, and environmental factors,” says Greves. Some of the main factors include:
- Genetics: Researchers have identified 241 different genes that may play a role in PCOS development. Most of these genes control your hormone receptors and ovary functions.
- Insulin resistance: Your body produces insulin to help you process glucose and keep your blood sugar levels down. But your cells can become resistant to insulin, meaning you’ll need to produce more and more, leading to a build-up in your body. This excess insulin can trigger your body to produce more male hormones like testosterone and lead to PCOS symptoms.
- Inflammation: People with PCOS have low grade inflammation, which can trigger hormone imbalances and changes in ovulation.
Complications of PCOS
- Type-2 diabetes. When your sex hormones become imbalanced, you can develop insulin resistance, a condition in which your body is unable to balance your blood sugar levels, says Chan. Over time, having higher blood sugar levels can lead you to develop type-2 diabetes.
- Heart disease. PCOS causes your body to build up excess insulin hormone, which can make you gain belly fat. This type of fat, called visceral fat, puts you at risk for high cholesterol and heart disease.
- Sleep apnea. Between 40% to 85% of all people with PCOS are overweight or obese, which puts them at greater risk of sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when your airway closes while you sleep, causing you to stop breathing and wake up many times throughout the night.
- Mood disorders. “Women with PCOS are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression than those without PCOS,” says Christine Greves, MD, an OB-GYN at Winnie Palmer Hospital. This may be because the hormone imbalance in PCOS makes it harder for your body to regulate cortisol, a hormone that affects your stress levels and emotions.
PCOS is a hormonal condition that causes a variety of symptoms, including irregular periods, abnormal hair growth, and weight gain. And over time, it can put you at greater risk for developing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea.
“The good news is that a lot of research has been done to help us navigate around this diagnosis and improve quality-of-life,” Greves says. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of PCOS, “getting an appointment with a doctor who is familiar with the syndrome is crucial,” says Chan.