Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder. Most often, symptoms first appear in adolescence, around the start of menstruation. However, some women do not develop symptoms until their early to mid-20's. Although PCOS presents early in life, it persists through and beyond the reproductive years.
PCOS is estimated to affect between 5 and 10 percent of women of reproductive age, thus making it the most common hormonal disorder among women in this age group. It affects women of all races and nationalities.
No two women have exactly the same symptoms. The following characteristics are very often associated with PCOS but not all are seen in every woman:
- Hirsutism (excessive hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen, etc.)
- Hair loss (androgenic alopecia, in a classic "male baldness" pattern)
- Polycystic ovaries
- Infertility or reduced fertility
In addition, women with PCOS appear to be at increased risk of developing the following health problems during their lives:
- Insulin resistance
- Lipid abnormalities
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Cardiovascular disease
- Endometrial carcinoma (cancer)
Because there is such variability in the clinical presentation of PCOS, there is not universal agreement among health professionals on how to best define the syndrome. What is clear, however, is that women with the disorder do not ovulate in a predictable manner and that women with PCOS also produce excessive quantities of androgens (particularly testosterone).
Polycystic ovaries are not present in all women diagnosed with PCOS. Also, many women with regular menstrual periods and normal testosterone levels have cystic ovaries.