What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal disorder. It is also known by its abbreviated name PCOS and sometimes as polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is quite common, affecting between 12-18% of women of reproductive age and up to 21% of women in some high-risk groups, such as Indigenous women.

PCOS can be a complex condition to identify because there are several symptoms and not all of them are required to be present for a diagnosis of PCOS. Also, very few women with PCOS have the same set of symptoms.

What are the signs & symptoms of PCOS?

Many of the symptoms of PCOS are caused by high levels of androgens in the body. Androgens are also called ‘male’ hormones, the main one being testosterone. Even though they are called ‘male’ hormones, all women have androgens; they are necessary for good health. However, in women with PCOS the levels of androgens are too high, affecting ovulation (release of an egg from the ovary), periods and other body systems.

Symptoms of PCOS may affect these body systems and cause these symptoms:

  • Periods and fertility
    • No periods, or periods that are:
      • Irregular
      • Infrequent
      • Heavy
    • Immature ovarian eggs that do not ovulate
    • Multiple cysts on the ovaries
    • Difficulty becoming pregnant
  • Hair, skin & weight
    • Excess facial and/or body hair
    • Acne on the face and/or body
    • Scalp hair loss
    • Darkened skin patches
    • Easy weight gain
  • Mental & emotional health, sleep
    • Mood changes
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Sleep apnoea (a sleep disorder in which abnormal pauses of breathing occur during sleep)

PCOS symptoms can be different from woman to woman. Some women will have only some of these symptoms, whereas others will have all of them. In some women, symptoms may be mild, while other women’s symptoms may be severe in nature.

How do you know if you have PCOS?

If you think you may have PCOS, you need to see your doctor and discuss your symptoms and medical history with them. Don’t rely solely on online information and ‘self-diagnose’ without seeking help.

A diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome can be made when at least two out of these three criteria are met:

  1. The ovaries are “polycystic” because:
    • 12 or more follicles are visible on one ovary or;
    • the size of one or both ovaries is increased
  1. There are:
    • high levels of ‘male’ hormones (androgens) in the blood (hyperandrogenism)
    • symptoms suggesting an excess of androgens such as excess hair growth or acne
  1. There is menstrual dysfunction such as:
    • lack of periods or menses (menstrual flow)
    • menstrual irregularity
    • lack of ovulation

Your doctor may use some tests for PCOS to exclude other conditions and make sure you have the correct diagnosis.

Tests for PCOS can include blood tests, to check your hormone levels and assess your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, and ultrasound, to see whether there are any cysts on your ovaries and whether an ovary is enlarged. An ultrasound can also assess whether your womb lining is normal, as in some women with PCOS there can be abnormal thickening of the womb lining.

Apart from fertility problems, PCOS is also linked to chronic health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. That is why it’s important that your symptoms get the attention they need, so you can be the healthiest you can be.


There are a number of ways to manage the symptoms and impact of PCOS. The keys to managing PCOS successfully include:

  • A good understanding of how PCOS is caused and the effect it has on the body
  • A healthy approach to eating and physical activity
  • Appropriate medical therapies

The Jean Hailes website has a wealth of information on how to best manage PCOS. You will find information on lifestyle changes, medicines and natural therapies, as well as targeted treatment for the symptoms of irregular periods, hair changes, acne, weight management and fertility problems.


Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health
1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)