Are your periods irregular? Are you growing hair in places you know you shouldn’t? Are you struggling to conceive? If you answered yes to these questions, you might have a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). PCOS affects an estimated 10% of women. But how do you know if you have it?
Symptoms of PCOS
Many doctors have trouble diagnosing PCOS because many of the symptoms are often attributed to stress or an unhealthy lifestyle.
These symptoms include:
- Irregular periods
- Hirsutism (excessive hair growth on the face, abdomen, chest, or upper thighs)
- Weight gain
Charting to the Rescue
Charting your cycle is a great way to stay attuned to your body’s daily fluctuations. Here are some patterns you might recognize in your own cycles that could be symptomatic of PCOS.
- Longer cycles: The typical cycle length is anywhere between 21 to 35 days. Women with PCOS often report having cycles that last anywhere from 35 to 60 days. This indicates that ovulation is occurring irregularly, or not at all. While going months between periods could be PCOS related, it could also be caused by thyroid disease, stress, or an excess of prolactin (the hormone used to make milk after childbirth).
- Irregular bleeding: Irregular bleeding in non-PCOS cases often means having a heavier flow than usual or bleeding between regular intervals. But women who go months between cycles may notice brown spotting or bleeding in between their periods that may last for several days.
- Prolonged cervical mucus production: PCOS often causes extended periods of cervical mucus. Cervical mucus is produced by the cervix in response to increased levels of estrogen as the ovary prepares for ovulation. Typically, women experience this for three to eight days. Because PCOS often causes fluctuating levels of estrogen, women with PCOS experience more mucus over a longer period of time.
Remember, a healthy chart doesn’t necessarily mean a clean bill of health. Whether you observe these patterns in your cycles or not, you should see your gynecologist, especially if you are getting your period less than every two months.
Your Next Step
When you see your gynecologist, they will do a blood test to check your hormone levels and an ultrasound to check that your ovaries aren’t polycystic. These are small, fluid-filled cysts that form in the ovary when an egg is not regularly released. If left untreated, they can cause heart disease or diabetes.
There is no cure for PCOS and treatment options are limited. They include:
- Lifestyle changes: Taking vitamins, achieving a healthy BMI weight, getting enough sleep—all of these steps can help mitigate the symptoms of PCOS
- Prescription drugs: If simple lifestyles changes aren’t doing enough to alleviate symptoms, your doctor might prescribe drugs such as Metformin or Clomid to manage your symptoms. While these drugs are not FDA approved to treat PCOS, they can be helpful in controlling the symptoms. Make sure you consult with your doctor on which drugs will best suit your needs.
While there is no cure for PCOS, never give up on healing. Consult your gynecologist on what options are best for you.