Everything You Need to Know About PCOS

Published: March 8, 2021Updated: March 2, 2022

Irregular periods, unusual hair growth, weight gain and acne that’ll have you double-checking you haven’t time traveled back to middle school. Is this a mystery diagnosis on an old Grey’s Anatomy episode? Not quite—they’re all symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. 

Unfamiliar with this hormonal disorder? That’s okay, we’re here to help. Here’s what to know about PCOS and how to treat its symptoms.

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a disorder where the body’s hormones are out of whack, and that imbalance presents itself in three main ways: cysts on the ovaries (hence, the name), higher levels of the male hormone androgen, and irregular or missed periods. While scientists aren’t totally sure what causes PCOS, genetics, insulin resistance, and inflammation have all been connected to androgen overproduction. 

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

The most common symptoms of PCOS are irregular periods or heavy bleeding. That’s because the hormonal imbalance can mess with ovulation, preventing the uterine lining from shedding each month. Someone with PCOS might miss periods, have periods more frequently than every 28 days, or stop having periods altogether. And when the uterine lining doesn’t shed, it builds up, so when a period does happen, it’s much heavier than normal.

Other symptoms are similar to what you’d see in a tween going through puberty: acne, weight gain or loss and darkening of the skin. And due to the surplus of androgen, people might also experience thinning hair or male-pattern baldness, or hair growth on the face, chin, or chest. 

What are the complications of PCOS?

Unfortunately, PCOS’s effect on your body doesn’t stop there. People with PCOS can be at risk for developing other medical issues, too. 

For example, since PCOS often means skipped or irregular periods (a.k.a. no uterine lining shedding and no ovulating), someone with PCOS can be at higher risk for both endometrial cancer and infertility. In fact, between 70 and 80 percent of women with PCOS struggle with conceiving.  Birth control can help regulate some of the day-to-day issues with PCOS, though—more on that in a second.

People with PCOS can also be more likely to have high blood sugar and high blood pressure, plus low levels of “good” cholesterol, and high levels of “bad” cholesterol. Together, that suggests a correlation between obesity and PCOS, although doctors aren’t totally sure which causes which (a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario).  

Finally, people who have PCOS may encounter various complications with pregnancy, like gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, or miscarriage. In some cases, lifestyle changes (like maintaining a healthy blood sugar) can help you have a healthy pregnancy; you should also follow your doctor’s recommendations for exercise, nutrition, and medication.

How can birth control help manage PCOS?

There’s no cure to PCOS, but there are ways to manage the symptoms, improve fertility, and reduce the risk of complications. 

Similar to when treating endometriosis, birth control is commonly prescribed to help treat symptoms of PCOS. That’s because the pill contains estrogen and progestin, and adding those hormones to the system can help regulate hormones. Once on birth control, people often resume regular ovulation, and the hormone-related symptoms (like hair growth or acne) fade away. (And bonus—taking the pill for PCOS can also lower the risk of developing endometrial cancer.)

You can take the pill for as long as your doctor prescribes it (which can be many decades!), and if you’re ready to try and get pregnant, all you have to do is talk to your doctor and stop taking the pill

While PCOS is estimated to affect 10-20% of women in the United States, it’s still extremely underdiagnosed. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, talk to your doctor about PCOS and whether starting birth control might help your symptoms.  

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