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What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

A woman grips her stomach in pain.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is common, but many women haven't heard of it. This condition can, and should, be treated.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) sometimes goes by other names:

  • Polycystic ovarian disease.
  • Stein-Leventhal syndrome.

It can produce any of these symptoms:

  • Male pattern hair growth (on the face, chest and abdomen).
  • Male pattern hair loss (starting at the temples and moving toward the back of the head).
  • Acne.
  • Obesity.
  • Difficulty getting pregnant.
  • Unusually heavy periods.
  • Unusually light or absent periods.

The source

PCOS is a hormonal disorder. The ovaries produce too much of the male hormone testosterone. That's why some of the symptoms resemble male traits.

The hormonal imbalance may make it impossible for eggs to develop and leave the ovaries. The follicle—a saclike, fluid-filled covering for the egg—remains in the ovary and becomes a cyst.

PCOS can eventually affect nearly every system and organ in the body. Too much of one hormone can affect levels of several other hormones. These hormones can affect several others, and so on.

The risks

Women with PCOS may be at a greater risk for:

  • Infertility.
  • Endometrial cancer.
  • Diabetes.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Heart disease.
  • Depression and anxiety.


Because the cause of PCOS is unknown, treatment is based on symptoms. Treatments include:

  • Any of several hormones that increase female hormones or reduce or block male hormones.
  • Electrolysis, waxing, bleaching or plucking to remove unwanted hair.
  • Weight management through healthy eating and exercise.
  • Infertility treatment.
  • Surgery. For women who want to get pregnant, surgery may restore ovulation for a period of six to eight months.
  • Birth control pills. According to the Office on Women's Health (OWH), women who don't want to become pregnant can use birth control pills to help control menstrual cycles, reduce male hormone levels and clear acne. However, the menstrual cycle will become abnormal again if the pill is stopped.
  • Diabetes medications. The OWH notes that the medicine metformin, which is used to treat type 2 diabetes, has been found to help with PCOS symptoms. However, it hasn't been specifically approved for this use.

Research continues on treatments that address the cause of PCOS, in addition to the symptoms.

Reviewed 3/17/2022

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