Cecily never really worried that her periods weren't regular because,
like many girls, she assumed her monthly cycle would take time to
settle down. But then Cecily's periods stopped for several months,
so she went to see her doctor. The doctor noticed that Cecily's
acne had worsened and that she had gained a lot of weight since
her last appointment. She said she wanted to check Cecily for a
condition called polycystic (pronounced: pah-lee-sis-tik) ovary
What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
You can't see them, hear them, or feel them, but the hormones that
regulate a girl's reproductive system make themselves known in many
ways - they are responsible for her periods, breast development,
and other aspects of becoming a woman.
Both girls and guys produce hormones called androgens (pronounced:
an-druh-junz), which play a role in sexual function. Although androgens
are sometimes referred to as male hormones, every female produces
In girls with PCOS, the ovaries produce higher than normal amounts
of androgens, and this can interfere with egg development and release.
Some of the eggs develop into cysts (pronounced: sists), which are
little sacs filled with liquid. Instead of being released during
ovulation, as an egg is during a normal menstrual cycle, the cysts
build up in the ovaries and may become enlarged. Because of the
way the cyst production interferes with the menstrual cycle, it's
common for girls and women with PCOS to have irregular or missed
Although PCOS (which used to be called Stein-Leventhal syndrome)
was first recognized in the 1930s, doctors can't say for sure what
causes it. Research has suggested that PCOS may be related to increased
insulin production in the body. Women with PCOS may produce too
much insulin, which signals their ovaries to release extra male
hormones. PCOS seems to run in families, too, so if someone on your
mom's or dad's side of the family has it, you might be more likely
to develop it.
If PCOS is not treated properly, it can put a girl at risk for
lots of problems, such as infertility, excessive hair growth, acne,
diabetes, heart disease, abnormal bleeding from the uterus, and
cancer. The good news is that, although there's no cure for PCOS,
it can be treated. The most important step is diagnosing the condition,
because when a girl gets treatment for PCOS, her chances of having
serious side effects are reduced.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
A key sign of PCOS is irregular or missed periods because the effects
of the condition on the ovaries can make a girl stop ovulating.
However, because it can take up to 2 years after her first period
for a girl's menstrual cycle to become regular, missed periods may
not be a reliable sign of PCOS in teen girls. Imbalanced hormone
levels can cause changes in a girl's entire body, not just her ovaries,
so doctors also look for these other signs that might indicate PCOS:
- abdominal discomfort or, in girls who have their periods, severe
premenstrual symptoms such as cramping, bloating, and irritability
- very heavy periods
- weight gain, obesity, or difficulty maintaining a normal weight
- a condition called hirsutism (pronounced: her-suh-tiz-um), where
a girl grows extra hair on her face, chest, abdomen, nipple area,
or back (a little of this is normal for most girls, though)
- thinning hair on the head (doctors call this alopecia)
- acne and clogged pores
- darkened, thickened skin around the neck, armpits, or breasts
- high blood pressure
Girls who show certain signs of puberty early - such as girls who
develop underarm or pubic hair before the age of 8 - may be at greater
risk of having PCOS later on.
How Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Diagnosed?
If you've taken your concerns about your body to your doctor, you're
on the right track. Your doctor may refer you to a gynecologist
(pronounced: guy-nuh-kah-luh-jist, a doctor who specializes in the
female reproductive system), or an endocrinologist (pronounced:
en-duh-kra-nah-luh-jist, a doctor who specializes in hormonal problems),
for a diagnosis. The gynecologist or endocrinologist will ask you
about any concerns and symptoms you have, your past health, your
family's health, any medications you're taking, any allergies you
may have, and other issues. He or she will also ask you lots of
questions specifically about your period and its regularity. This
is called the medical history. In addition to your medical history,
your doctor will do a physical examination, which includes checking
your weight, and checking especially for physical signs such as
acne, hair growth, and darkened skin.
A doctor may also perform blood tests to diagnose PCOS or to rule
out other conditions, such as thyroid or other ovarian or gland
problems. Blood tests allow doctors to measure insulin and other
hormone levels. The results of these tests can help doctors to determine
the type of treatment a girl will receive. Your doctor may also
order another test, called an ultrasound, to look at your ovaries
and to determine if you have cysts or other abnormalities of the
ovaries. Because cysts are not always visible, though, this test
is not always used.
Early diagnosis and treatment for PCOS are important because the
condition can put girls at risk for long-term problems. Getting
treated for PCOS is a good idea if you want to have a baby someday
- PCOS often causes infertility if it's not treated. But when PCOS
is treated properly, many women with the condition have healthy
How Is It Treated?
Although there's no cure for PCOS, there are several ways that the
condition can be treated and managed.
If a girl is overweight or obese, a doctor will recommend that
she lose weight. Weight loss can be very effective in lessening
many of the health conditions associated with PCOS, such as high
blood pressure and diabetes. Sometimes weight loss alone can restore
hormone levels to normal, causing many of the symptoms to disappear
or become less severe. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can
look at your food intake and your exercise and activity to tailor
a weight-loss program for you. Exercise is a great way to help combat
the weight gain that often accompanies PCOS as well as a way to
reduce bloating, another symptom girls with PCOS often experience.
Sometimes doctors prescribe medications to treat PCOS. A doctor
might first have a girl try birth control pills to help reduce the
androgen levels in her body and regulate her menstrual cycle. Birth
control pills may help control acne and excessive hair growth in
some girls, but they don't work for everyone.
Other medications used to treat PCOS include antiandrogens, which
counter the effects of excess androgens on a girl's body. Antiandrogens
can help clear up skin and hair growth problems in girls with PCOS.
Another medication, metformin, which is used to treat diabetes,
can lower insulin levels. In some girls with PCOS, it can help control
ovulation and androgen levels. This can make a girl's menstrual
cycles more regular. Some girls and women treated with metformin
have also experienced weight loss and lowering of high blood pressure.
Coping With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Having PCOS can be hard on a girl's self-esteem because some of
the symptoms, such as skin and hair problems and weight gain, are
so noticeable. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce
the physical symptoms - and take care of the emotional side of living
Although the medications used to treat PCOS will slow down or stop
excessive hair growth for many girls, there are lots of different
types of products available to help a girl get rid of hair where
she doesn't want it. Depilatory creams can gently remove facial
hair on the upper lip or chin. Be sure to follow the instructions
carefully so you don't develop a rash or allergic reaction. Tweezing
and waxing are other things you can do at home to manage hair growth.
A girl can also visit a dermatologist (a doctor who specializes
in skin problems) or qualified hair removal specialist for electrolysis
and laser surgery treatments. Both of these procedures offer longer
term removal of unwanted hair, although they are more expensive.
If you have severe acne as a symptom of PCOS, it may improve if
part of your treatment includes birth control pills or antiandrogens.
If it doesn't, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist for
further acne treatment. A dermatologist may also be able to recommend
medications to help reduce skin darkening or discoloration.
Some girls with PCOS may become depressed, in which case it may
help to talk to a therapist or other mental health professional.
Talking with other teens and women with PCOS is a great way to share
information about treatment and get support. Your doctor may be
able to recommend a local support group. If you can't find a local
group, the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association offers a "Big
Cyster" program for teen girls as well as online message boards.
If you join, you'll be hooked up with other women or teen girls
with PCOS to whom you can turn for advice, support, or just a listening