Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects about one in ten women in the UK, yet still, many people know very little about this common health problem. September is recognised as PCOS Awareness Month, with an emphasis on showing women who are affected by PCOS how to overcome their symptoms and reduce the chance of subsequent diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
We should never take reproductive health for granted. It is vitally important to know your own body and identify how everything works for you. This guide should help you to get to grips with everything related to PCOS, tackle the taboo, end the stigma, and get someone genuine help. With assistance from first-hand PCOS experiences, we look at how you can stay safe and keep healthy.
The effects of PCOS
We know that hormones play a pivotal role in the processes of the female body. From the signs of your first period, to childbirth, to menopause, hormones are with you every step of the way. PCOS is a condition that affects women’s hormone levels, where the body produces high levels of insulin and testosterone. The imbalances of hormones in your body can then lead to irregular or no periods at all, which can consequently make it difficult to get pregnant.
Even though the name would suggest otherwise, women who suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome do not usually have cysts. Instead, ovary follicles are usually underdeveloped sacs with eggs forming within them. With PCOS, the eggs cannot be released by the sac, and menstruation cannot take place.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
While PCOS can affect women of all ages, the condition becomes most apparent between a woman’s late teenage years and early twenties. Likewise, the symptoms can vary and differ between people, but the signs are often similar. PCOS symptoms are not limited to, but can include:
If you experience these symptoms, or feel that something isn’t normal for your body, make an appointment with your GP. The variety of symptoms that are a consequence of PCOS can often mean that the condition is misdiagnosed. Understandable, the conditions are universal of other illnesses, making a confirmed diagnosis a long and difficult process.
Niamh, a 22-year-old woman, spoke to us and reflected on her experience with PCOS and the diagnosis process: “I’d experienced severe cramps that were getting in the way of my normal routines, as well as period irregularities, so I was really concerned at the time. Before the PCOS diagnosis, my doctor suggested trying over the counter painkillers, but after few trips back to the surgery I was finally told that I had the condition”.
The key to Niamh’s experience was understanding what was normal for her. You cannot expect two experiences of PCOS to be the same. It’s important to remember that your period should not get in the way of your day to day routine and dealing with symptoms of PCOS can be a difficult process every month. Make sure you find the right products for you, especially if you face heavy or irregular periods. Finding a product that reflects the correct absorbency for your period is essential. Organic tampons may be a viable option for you, they often have an improved absorbency, and reduce irritation and the risk of cancer.
There’s currently no cure for PCOS but the symptoms can be treated. Speaking to a GP is essential if you believe you have the condition. After a diagnosis, various medication may be prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms. Clomiphene may be prescribed to help resume regular ovulation. Metformin is a medicine used to treat type 2 diabetes and is commonly used to help with PCOS. Other medicine can be used to help relieve the symptoms of acne and irregular hair loss and growth.
When discussing the variety of treatments needed for individual reports of PCOS, Becca, 24, had this to say: “People are very unaware of how different the symptoms can be, and treatment needs to be quite personalised.”
There are also options for naturopathy if you’re looking for alternative medicinal routes. When considering PCOS, we shouldn’t confine women to a singular form of treatment, especially when looking at the approaches to the visible and non-visible symptoms.
Becca continued: “It is possible for treatments to mask your symptoms rather than alleviate the root of the problem—and some women don’t even get a PCOS diagnosis before they’re offered medication for the signs”.
How does PCOS affect fertility?
PCOS does have some links with female infertility, but this usually depends on the severity of the condition in each case. With the correct treatment, PCOS should not get in the way of getting pregnant. There are medications that can be prescribed to help treat symptoms and help stimulate fertility. We recommend visiting a fertility specialist for more guidance for women who have PCOS and are trying to conceive naturally.
For women who suffer from PCOS, the steps to increasing fertility are the same as women who do not have the condition. Modifying your diet and lifestyle and making healthy choices can help boost fertility. However, for some women who struggle to get pregnant while having PCOS, options including vitro fertilisation may be a more viable recommendation. Again, consult your GP.
In summary, while fertility can be affected by PCOS, it varies between individual cases. Natural pregnancies do not have to be ruled out entirely by women who have PCOS.
Ending the stigma with PCOS
One of the main focusses of PCOS Awareness Month is to tackle the taboo surrounding the condition. For the severity of the common condition, Jade, 23, feels that PCOS is credited with validity.
“From my experience, PCOS isn’t treated with enough sensitivity, and as few of the symptoms are visible, people can often pass it off as period pain, which makes you feel invalid,” said Jade. “I went through so many tests, from bloods to thyroid examinations, with no clear diagnosis, it felt like I was just being passed back and forth between doctors.”
When it comes to concerns with personal health, you can talk to anyone you feel comfortable with. Parents, friends, teachers, and GPs are all people who care for you and discussing symptoms with them is an early and pivotal step to good health.
For every woman, their experience with PCOS will be different. Not every symptom may be experienced, and often comes with differing degrees of severity. Of the women we talked to, all expressed that they were unaware of the condition before they were diagnosed with it. This highlights the education of the topic—should schools be more open to explaining and helping girls prepare for potential health problems in the future and recognising their symptoms? Intimate health is vitally important and destroying the taboo around it is essential. Seeking guidance and sharing experiences should be the normal, we must work towards it.
The taboo around PCOS can be tackled by you. Discuss the issue with those around you and educated others on the condition. Get familiar with your intimate health, recognise what is normal and don’t be afraid to speak out when you find or know something that doesn’t feel right.