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What Are The Symptoms Of PCOS?

Here's what you need to keep an eye out for.
a woman wearing a pink top holding her stomach or mid-section area
PHOTO: Getty Images/EyeEm

Whenever you had acne breakouts as a teenager, it was easy to chalk it up to adolescence—because who didn't get those when they were 16, right? But as an adult, how do you know if it's just a regular breakout or a symptom of something bigger like polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS

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Though it affects one in every five women, not a lot of women think about PCOS when they experience breakouts or notice irregularities in their menstrual cycle. In fact, most women find out they have PCOS only when they decide to start a family; many are left undiagnosed. 

a woman holding her stomach or mid-section area
Irregular or non-existent periods is a common symptom of PCOS. Getty Images/PhotoAlto

PCOS symptoms: intro to PCOS

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal condition that is commonly seen in women of reproductive or childbearing age. It generally occurs when you have an insulin-resistance gene. Insulin is the hormone that controls sugar metabolism; any normal cell has around 120,000 receptors for insulin. The insulin attaches to one of the receptors and unlocks the sugar molecule that enters your cell. As a result, sugar is burned. Women with PCOS only have around 5,000 receptors. This means having fewer landing sites for insulin, and less sugar is metabolized by the cell. 


All that excess sugar has to go somewhere, right? Well, the liver turns all of that into excess fat, which is why some women with PCOS experience a sudden weight gain. The pancreas also come into play: When it notices all the excess sugar, it sends more insulin through your system to attempt to bring the sugar down. This causes your ovaries to secrete high levels of testosterone, resulting in acne and male pattern facial hair

Other causes include inflammation in polycystic ovaries, heredity, and excess androgen. 

People have this misconception that PCOS is only a problem if you want children in the future: PCOS can affect your period cycle and not ovulating regularly can make it harder for women to conceive. But it's so much more than that. Women with PCOS are at a higher risk of developing other health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and high cholesterol—both of which can lead to heart disease—as well as sleep apnea. 

PCOS symptoms: checklist

Though there are several criteria when it comes to diagnosing PCOS, doctors tend to check for at least two of the following symptoms: irregular or no period, extra follicles found on ovaries via an ultrasound, and signs of high levels of androgens. Ahead are all possible PCOS symptoms you need to be aware of. 

  • You have irregular periods. This means that instead of getting your period every month, you get it every two to three months. Some women with PCOS only have their period once or twice a year. 
  • You can't explain your sudden weight gain. A hormonal imbalance can cause women to pack on a few more pounds and many women with PCOS are more likely to be obese. 
  • You're growing hair in places you didn't expect it to. Male pattern hair growth or hirsutism is common among women with PCOS. This usually occurs on the chin, the sides of the face, and the stomach. 
  • You're experiencing acne breakouts. A hormonal shift can lead to oily skin and pimples, as many of you already know. 
  • You're having trouble getting pregnant. Women with PCOS ovulate infrequently or not at all, which makes it harder to get pregnant. 
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PCOS symptoms: treatment

Right now, there is no "cure" to PCOS. Most doctors suggest birth control as a form of treatment because it is less painful and has proven to be an effective way to regulate a woman's menstruation. PCOS treatment options are more geared towards handling its symptoms (like hair growth and acne). 

But there are several lifestyle changes you can make on your own if you've been diagnosed with PCOS. Most women, for example, decide to handle the weight gain by regulating their food intake, with a large portion of their diet consisting of fruits and vegetables, whole foods, fish, chicken, and lean meats. Regular exercise is also always a good idea; it can help you maintain the weightloss after you adjust to your new eating habits. 

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