Many women take their reproductive health for granted, but it is vital to understand your own body and identify the things that are normal for you. While we recognised PCOS awareness month this September, there is still a lot that people don’t know about the condition.
According to NHS England, PCOS affects 1 in 5 women here in the UK, but do we know enough about it? So, join us as we discuss all things related to PCOS and tackle the truth behind the taboo, with help from some genuine PCOS experiences.
How does PCOS affect women?
Hormones play a key role in many of the internal processes of the female body, managing everything from the signs of your first period to having a baby in later life. Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition which affects women’s hormone levels, specifically involving the production of androgen — male hormones. This imbalance can lead to irregular periods, meaning that your ovaries are not releasing eggs regularly.
Despite the name of the condition suggesting otherwise, women who have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome do not necessarily have cysts. The follicles are underdeveloped sacs, and typically eggs will form within them, but in cases of PCOS these sacs cannot release the egg, inhibiting menstruation as a result.
Recognising the symptoms
Typically, the sings of PCOS tend to become apparent during a woman’s late teenage years or in the early twenties — however, it does effect women of all ages. The severity and range of symptoms experienced is likely to differ between people, but some of the possible signs to look out for include:
- Hair loss or thinning hair
- Acne or noticeably oily skin
- Irregular periods, or a lack of any menstruation
- Issues with getting pregnant — in PCOS, you are not ovulating/ ovulating irregularly
- Hair growth which can be excessive on the chest, face, buttocks or back
- Weight gain
If you experience any of the above or anything that isn’t normal for your body, then you should make an appointment to see your GP. The problem that many women face with PCOS is that it is often misdiagnosed with a whole array or other conditions that can mimic the symptoms, making the diagnosis a long, difficult process sometimes.
Niamh, 22, spoke to us about her experience with PCOS symptoms and her subsequent diagnosis:
“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”.
As mentioned, one of the most important things is to have a solid understanding of what is normal for you — no two experiences of the condition will be the same. Irregular or heavier periods are some of the most common symptoms of PCOS and managing them from month to month can be difficult. Your period shouldn’t get in the way of your normal routine, so make sure you look for the right product for you, with the correct absorbency for your flow. You could try using non-applicator organic tampons, as they are available in the widest range of absorbencies and especially help those that require . By finding the absorbency that suits your individual flow, you won’t have to worry about leaks.
How is PCOS treated?
Despite there being no cure for PCOS as of yet, there’s a multitude of ways that you can manage and alleviate the symptoms. After a woman is diagnosed with the condition, various medications might be prescribed by a doctor following diagnosis.
Clomifene is usually the first option prescribed to help ovulation resume, or metformin, used commonly to treat type 2 diabetes, can be given to women — although for PCOS it is used ‘off-label’ as it isn’t actually licensed for treating the condition in the UK. There’s also medication options for targeting other PCOS symptoms such as acne and unwanted hair loss/growth.
Becca, 24, discussed the need for variety when it comes to treating individual cases of PCOS:” People are very unaware of how different the symptoms can be, and treatment needs to be quite personalised”. As well as the options we’ve discussed, there are treatments based on naturopathy that women could opt for. For PCOS, it is important that as women, we deconstruct the ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing the symptoms, both visible and not.
Becca added that ”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”.
What does a PCOS diagnosis mean for fertility?
While PCOS can be linked to female infertility, this outcome is not set and it will depend on the severity of the case. With treatment in place, getting pregnant naturally is possible, and there are multiple medications which are commonly prescribed to treat symptoms but also to stimulate fertility.
A fertility specialist will be able to provide more guidance for women who have PCOS and struggle to conceive naturally. Positive steps to pursue for managing symptoms and boosting fertility include modifying your diet and lifestyle. Some women do require further help to get pregnant in PCOS cases though, and in vitro fertilisation might be recommended.
Overall, fertility can be affected differently case to case, and natural pregnancies are not ruled out in those who do have PCOS.
Taking the taboo out of PCOS
One of the biggest issues that PCOS Awareness Month tackled is the way that it can often be treat as a taboo, and Jade, 23 described her frustration during her PCOS diagnosis: “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”.
She added, “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”. Talk to whoever you feel most comfortable around when it comes to any of your own concerns, whether it’s a parent, a friend from school or a teacher that you trust.
PCOS affects everyone differently, meaning that there is a vast spectrum for experiencing the condition and you might not experience every listed symptom. All of the women that we spoke to expressed an unawareness of the condition prior to their diagnosis, and this poses the issue of education — should schools be sharing more with their female students on this, in order to develop better understandings of our intimate health?
The taboo around PCOS should certainly be tackled, whether this is sought by educating girls on the condition from a younger age. Know what is normal for your body and don’t be afraid to voice any concerns!