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Polycystic ovary syndrome

Overview of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

When higher than average levels of androgenic (male) hormones are present in a female body, cysts may form in the ovaries. This marks a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a relatively common medical condition experienced by between 5 and 10 percent of women. It causes a variety of symptoms, ranging from excess hair growth to high blood pressure and pain. If left untreated, it can also lead to a greater risk of conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Various treatment options for PCOS are available. If you have PCOS, the healthcare professionals at Dignity Health are here to help. Find a Doctor near you to start a personalized PCOS treatment plan today.


PCOS can develop in adult women of any age. Some are diagnosed immediately following puberty, while others first notice symptoms in their late 20s or 30s or when trying to become pregnant.

Although the symptoms of PCOS vary from woman to woman, there are several distinctive PCOS symptoms, including:

  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Infertility or trouble getting pregnant
  • Increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, or toes
  • Obesity, unexplained weight gain, or difficulty losing weight
  • Severe acne and oily skin
  • Multiple cysts on the ovaries
  • Patches of thick, dark skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs
  • Sleep apnea, which causes trouble breathing during sleep

Some women with PCOS will notice only one of these symptoms, while others will see many or all of them. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, discuss your concerns with your doctor.


The symptoms of PCOS are caused by higher than usual levels of male (or “androgenic”) hormones such as testosterone, and insulin resistance. These hormones lead to the formation of fluid-filled sacs (or “cysts”) in the ovaries, which trigger PCOS symptoms.

Researchers don’t yet understand exactly what triggers the hormonal changes that lead to PCOS, but some factors include:

  • Genes: Most women with PCOS have a close female relative with the condition.
  • Lifestyle: Factors like higher body weight and smoking can also increase risk.
  • Insulin levels and sensitivity: High levels of insulin – a hormone that helps your body digest sugar – may have a role in increasing the production of androgens.
  • Inflammation: Low-grade inflammation in the body, such as caused by autoimmune conditions, may also cause spikes in testosterone.
  • Thyroid and other disorders that affect the hormonal balance in your body.

Risk factors

The exact causes of PCOS aren’t yet fully understood, but the following factors seem to be linked:

  • Genes: having an immediate family member such as a daughter, aunt, mother, or grandmother with PCOS
  • Smoking
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • High insulin production, or diabetes
  • High-stress lifestyle
  • Environmental factors like exposure to pollutants
  • Eating a vegetarian diet that’s lacking in nutrients like zinc or iodine
  • Use of birth control methods that include androgens


It’s not always possible to prevent PCOS, and it appears to be at least partially inherited through your genes. Help reduce your risk of PCOS by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Discussing birth control options with your doctor
  • Not smoking
  • Reducing stress where possible
  • Eating a healthy diet low in artificial sweeteners and trans fats, as recommended by your doctor

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.