Do I Have PCOS? 9 Easy-To-Identify Signs

What Does PCOS Stand For?

PCOS stands for polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition characterized by overproduction of male hormones, irregular menstrual periods, and cysts in the ovaries. PCOS can interfere with your reproductive and metabolic health and cause numerous symptoms.

While the causes of PCOS aren't fully understood, genetics are suspected to play a role, possibly in addition to certain health and lifestyle risk factors.

If you have ovaries and are in your childbearing years, you have about a 10% chance of developing PCOS.

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The symptoms of PCOS can overlap with a lot of other conditions. Here are 9 common symptoms to watch for, as well as how to tell whether they point to PCOS or another cause. The more informed you are, the better you'll be able to provide your doctor with the information necessary for a proper diagnosis.

Hair Loss

Hair loss in PCOS is sometimes called female androgenic alopecia (FAGA) or female pattern hair loss. It happens because of the androgens (male hormones) associated with PCOS.

Similar to male pattern baldness, FAGA causes thinning hair on top of your head and along the hairline. It doesn't result in baldness, though, as it does in men, because the follicle doesn't die. That means the hair may grow in again.

Multiple conditions other than PCOS can cause FAGA, including:

Several other conditions can cause general thinning of the hair all over, rather than in the distinctive pattern of FAGA. They include:

Some medications may cause non-patterned hair thinning, as well.

Fatigue

Fatigue is a possible symptom of PCOS, but it's also a symptom of many other illnesses and many lifestyle factors.

That makes it almost impossible to diagnose any condition based on fatigue alone. It has to be looked at in the context of your life and any other symptoms you may be experiencing.

Lifestyle factors that can cause fatigue include:

  • Inadequate sleep
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Long work hours
  • High stress
  • Medication side effects

Chronic conditions involving extreme fatigue that can have a severe impact on your life and ability to function include:

To help you and your doctor figure out what's causing fatigue, look for possible triggers. Do you get tired after eating certain foods? After a stressful event? After a small amount of exertion?

Try to describe the specifics of your fatigue. Is it a "kind of tired all the time but functioning" fatigue, or does it keep you in bed for days at a time? Does it come and go? Is it accompanied by pain or depression symptoms?

Mood Swings

Mood swings, anxiety, and depression all are associated with PCOS. It's theorized that this is because of abnormal brain chemistry and disruption of the brain-gut axis.

You probably already know that female hormones can cause mood swings, especially at certain times during the menstrual cycle, and it may be hard to tell them apart from PCOS mood swings.

However, PCOS often disrupts your cycle by preventing ovulation, so if you're missing periods and having mood swings, PCOS is a possibility.

Anxiety and depression can both be symptoms of many other illnesses, or they can be illnesses of their own. As is often the case, you and your doctor will need to look at your overall health and lifestyle along with any other symptoms you're having to determine the cause of these mood issues.

Migraines

Little research has been done involving migraines and PCOS, but it doesn't take long to find a lot of people online who have both and believe they're related. A 2019 study appears to confirm the link, calling migraine "highly associated" with PCOS.

Many people without PCOS have migraines, though. Migraines could be an indicator of PCOS if you:

  • Never had them until you started having other symptoms suggestive of PCOS
  • Have had them before but have noticed a change in frequency and potential triggers
  • Tend to have migraines at certain points of your menstrual cycle
  • Have them when other potential PCOS symptoms are especially bad

Sweet Cravings

Craving sweets all the time is a common symptom of PCOS, likely due to insulin resistance.

Women with PCOS tend to have high levels of insulin in their blood. All that insulin can interfere with the function of other appetite-regulating hormones, leading to increased hunger. Eating sugar and refined carbs, in particular, can lead to a sugar-rush-and-crash cycle that triggers more cravings.

PCOS cravings can become extremely damaging. People with PCOS are especially prone to binge-eating disorder. If you're obese, you're more likely to have a lot of food cravings, which makes weight loss harder.

To gauge whether your cravings could be insulin-related, watch for symptoms of low blood sugar that can come on a few hours after a binge, when high insulin levels can cause blood sugar levels to plummet. Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Anger brought on by hunger (“being hangry”)

Insulin is best known for its role in diabetes, so that's something your doctor will probably look for if you report food cravings that may be caused by insulin resistance.

Weight Gain or Difficulty Losing Weight

Weight loss can be very slow when you have PCOS, and it may be easy to gain weight as well, especially around the belly. Once again, insulin resistance is likely to blame.

Another one of insulin's jobs is promoting fat storage. Even when eating a healthy diet, avoiding binges, and getting regular exercise, some people with PCOS still gain weight.

Insulin resistance also makes it difficult to lose weight even with changes to diet and increased exercise. This is true in both PCOS and type 2 diabetes, which also features insulin resistance.

Other symptoms of insulin resistance may include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Dark, dry patches of skin in the armpits, groin, or back of the neck

Hirsutism

The high androgen levels of PCOS lead many people to develop coarse, dark hairs on the face and on body parts where men typically have body hair and women just have vellus hair ("peach fuzz.") This condition is called hirsutism.

While hirsutism is a sign of possible PCOS, it may also be due to several other conditions, such as:

Not everyone with PCOS has this symptom, but between 75% and 80% of women with hirsutism have PCOS.

Acne

Testosterone—the primary male hormone—is a cause of acne, so the high levels associated with PCOS can lead to breakouts that you may have thought you left behind along with puberty.

Not all adult acne is due to PCOS, though. Common causes include:

  • Hormonal fluctuations (periods, pregnancy, menopause)
  • Stress
  • Family history
  • Medication side effects
  • Reactions to skincare products

Fertility Issues

PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility in women. This may be the hardest part of the disease for women who want to have a baby, now or in the future. PCOS can interfere with ovulation, leading to irregular or absent periods and difficulties getting pregnant.

If you've been trying to get pregnant and nothing seems to work, you may be looking for an explanation. If you're skipping periods or only having them irregularly, and if you have other possible PCOS symptoms, it's worth a conversation with your doctor.

However, many other things can prevent you from getting pregnant, including:

You Can Get Pregnant With PCOS

Advancements in reproductive medicine are making it possible for more women with PCOS to become mothers than ever before. Keep discussing possibilities with your doctor and never give up hope.

PCOS Diagnosis

If you suspect you may have PCOS, pay attention to your symptoms and their triggers and, most importantly, see your doctor.

Because the symptoms above can be attributable to a lot of different conditions, it can take a while for your doctor to be certain of your diagnosis. You might need the following tests to confirm a PCOS diagnosis:

  • A pelvic examination
  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound or other imaging tests

The diagnostic criteria for PCOS includes:

  • Polycystic ovaries (12 or more small follicles in each ovary)
  • Hyperandrogenism (elevated testosterone or DHEA)
  • Ovulatory dysfunction (less frequent or absent periods)

If you are diagnosed with PCOS, know that numerous treatment options are available to help you manage the symptoms.

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