Seven warning signs you might have PCOS

Irregular periods? Anxiety? Difficulty getting pregnant? You might be suffering polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, is a common endocrine disorder that affects one in seven women in Australia.

But despite its prevalence, there are still many misconceptions about the condition.

From irregular periods to insulin insensitivity and anxiety, these are some of the red flags to watch out for, plus what to do if you suspect you have the condition.

Irregular periods

Irregular periods are very common in adolescent girls but they should regulate within about two years.

“Girls whose periods are irregular beyond that should consider seeing their GP,” says University of Western Australia professor of reproductive medicine Roger Hart, who is also medical director of Fertility Specialists of Western Australia.

“An abnormal cycle is between 21 and 42 days. They are either very short, very long or very infrequent cycles (less than eight a year).”

Excess hair or hair loss

While hirsutism (excess hair) is often spoken about when it comes to PCOS, hair loss can also be a symptom.

“Many of the symptoms of PCOS are caused by high levels of androgens circulating in your body, causing hyperandrogenism,” says Chris Enright, head of education and knowledge exchange at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.

“This causes hair loss or thinning of the scalp hair in a ‘male-like’ pattern: a receding frontal hair line and thinning on top of the scalp.”

Skin complaints

Have stubborn acne that just won’t let up? PCOS might be contributing the problem.

Women with PCOS are more likely to suffer from acne because their bodies produce more androgens (the male hormones).

“The higher level of androgens can increase the size of the oil production glands on the skin, which can lead to increased acne,” Chris says.

“Acne is common in adolescence, but young women with PCOS also tend to have more severe acne.”

If you’re really concerned about it, Prof Hart says the contraceptive pill can help calm sebum production.

“The hormonal effect of the pill is that it tends to mop up androgens in the blood, which means they are not able to exert their effect as much,” he says.

Tendency to store weight around the middle

It’s a common misconception that PCOS sufferers tend to be overweight, but Prof Hart says even women in the normal weight range have an increased propensity to put weight on around the belly – “rather than perhaps the buttocks and thighs”.

“That is the worst place to put weight down in terms of future cardiac risk,” he says.

Difficulty conceiving

There is a reason women with PCOS tend to have irregular menstrual cycles.

“This is generally because the woman is not ovulating regularly,” Prof Hart explains. “If that persists after coming off the pill, it’s a potential sign of PCOS.”

But, for women who are looking to start a family, he assures, it’s not a big problem.

“PCOS may lead to difficulty conceiving,” he says. “But you can take medication to gently stimulate ovulation and skilled fertility specialists will do that in a safe manner with minimal intervention.”

Unpredictable, heavy periods

Some women may ovulate but infrequently, which can lead to periods being heavy and unpredictable.

“In the later reproductive years for a woman with PCOS, unfortunately, if she is not having regular periods, she is prone to endometrial hyperplasia,” Prof Hart explains.

“This is when the lining of the uterus gets thicker and, while it is not cancer, it can lead to uterine cancer in some women.”

Increased anxiety or mood disorders

“About 29 per cent of women with PCOS have depression compared with around 7 per cent of women in the general population, and even more women with PCOS will have anxiety – 57 per cent compared with 18 per cent of women in the general population,” Chris says.

“On top of all this, coping with hirsutism, severe acne, weight changes and fertility problems may affect your body image, self-esteem, sexuality and femininity.

“It has also been shown that the longer it takes to receive a diagnosis of PCOS, the more likely women are to be depressed or anxious.”

If you’re struggling, Chris suggests seeing your GP.

What should you do if you suspect you might have PCOS?

First and foremost, Prof Hart says, is to speak to a trusted doctor.

“There are national and international guidelines for diagnosing and treating PCOS, and GPs are well aware of the condition,” he says.

“A woman can be diagnosed at any stage during reproductive life, so depending on where you’re at, you might also need to seek advice from a fertility specialist.”

Written by Tianna Nadalin.