How Do You Know If You Have PCOS? Key Signs to Look Out For
If you are experiencing signs of polycystic ovary syndrome, you are probably wondering whether you have PCOS or if it’s something else.
Frustratingly, there are still lots of unknowns where PCOS is concerned. Plus, there isn't one specific test for PCOS, meaning that it can take some time to diagnose. In fact, around 70% of PCOS cases go undiagnosed.
However, if you are experiencing any symptoms of PCOS, it’s important to get checked out by your GP or health practitioner to access appropriate treatment.
Everybody’s experience of PCOS is different so we’ve listed some of the most common signs of PCOS to keep an eye out for.
Key signs of PCOS to look out for
1. Polycystic ovaries – how are they checked?
Polycystic ovaries are one of the three main signs of PCOS, though they are not present in all cases.
If you have polycystic ovaries, your ovaries may be enlarged and contain harmless, fluid-filled follicles that surround the eggs. These follicles are underdeveloped sacs in which eggs are produced and, if you have PCOS, are often unable to release an egg. This means that ovulation cannot take place.
If your GP thinks you may have polycystic ovaries, you'll likely be referred for an ultrasound scan which can detect high levels of follicles.
Excess hair growth on the face, back, chest, and tummy, known medically as hirsutism, is present in more than 7 in 10 people with PCOS.
Hirsutism is caused by high levels of androgens (often referred to as “male” hormones), and is often reported as being the most distressing symptom of PCOS.
3. Irregular periods
Your periods are considered irregular if the length of your menstrual cycle changes, and you experience early or late periods.
The average menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days, but it’s very normal for it to be a little longer or shorter (after all, everybody’s different).
Although irregular periods aren't always present in people with PCOS they are very common, as the hormonal imbalance associated with PCOS tends to disrupt ovulation. When ovulation is disrupted the egg may not develop fully, or may not be released, which can result in missed or irregular periods.
Whilst not all acne is caused by polycystic ovary syndrome, it can be an indicator of PCOS.
High levels of androgens can trigger increased production of oil in the skin, which may result in acne on the face (particularly on the jawline, chin, and upper neck), back, and chest.
Spots tend to flare up around the time of your period (though can spring up at any time), and hang around longer than your usual pimple.
5. Weight gain
Between 38-88% of people with PCOS are – in medical terms – overweight or obese. This is because high levels of insulin trigger the increased production of androgens, which can result in weight gain.
Weight gain caused by PCOS tends to be stored about the abdomen. Though, it’s important to note that not everybody with PCOS experiences weight gain.
6. Thinning hair or hair loss
An excess of testosterone can also result in thinning head hair or hair loss, known as female pattern baldness (FPB). People who experience FPB as a result of PCOS may have hair loss around the temples or frontal regions of their scalp, shedding in large amounts, or dry, frizzy hair. Hair may also appear limp, thin, and damaged in people with PCOS.
How does your GP or healthcare provider check if you have PCOS?
The good news? You can get a PCOS diagnosis from your GP or healthcare provider, and start treating your symptoms.
The bad news? There’s no singular test for detecting PCOS in people, and so getting a diagnosis can take some time, and can involve multiple examinations.
First up, your doctor will likely want to hear about your medical history, your menstrual cycle, and your symptoms (be completely honest and open – something seemingly small could help your GP with your diagnosis). Then, you may be examined for physical symptoms of PCOS, such as excess hair growth, thinning head hair or hair loss, and acne.
According to the NHS, you’ll then undergo hormone tests to determine whether hormone imbalances are caused by PCOS or something else.
Your doctor may also advise:
- Blood tests, to measure hormones and check for diabetes.
- A pelvic exam, where your doctor does a visual and manual inspection of the ovaries and other pelvic organs to check for abnormalities.
- An ultrasound, which can detect polycystic ovaries.
To receive a PCOS diagnosis, you must meet at least 2 of the following 3 criteria:
- You have an irregular menstrual cycle.
- You have high levels of what are commonly known as “male” hormones.
- You have polycystic ovaries.
We have written a comprehensive guide on the symptoms of PCOS for further support.
As ever, check with a healthcare professional first before seeking help for your specific symptoms.