According to NHS England, PCOS affects 1 in 5 women here in the UK, but do we know enough about it? Well, September marks Polycystic Ovary Syndrome awareness month, and we believe that it is time to put the spotlight on the condition.
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. 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.
Why is there a taboo around PCOS?
So, September is PCOS Awareness Month, but do we know enough about how it affects our bodies and do we feel that it is approached in the right way? Tackling a taboo of this nature is essential, in order to help women normalise their experiences and seek the right guidance and healthcare.
Since the signs of PCOS affect everyone differently, there’s a vast spectrum for experiencing the condition and you might only notice one or two mild symptoms. 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?
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”.
How does PCOS affect women?
Many of the reproductive processes are controlled by hormones in women, from getting your period to breastfeeding and conception. One common misconception is that having polycystic ovaries means that you have cysts — this isn’t the case. 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.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is in fact 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.
Recognising the symptoms
The signs of PCOS will usually become apparent during a woman’s late teens or early twenties — but it can affect 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:
- 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
- Hair loss or thinning hair
- Acne or noticeably oily skin
Your GP should be your first port of call if you are worried about experiencing any of the above. 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, described her experience and 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”.
Get familiar with what is normal for you and your body, and if you are concerned about anything then be sure to make an appointment with your GP. 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 tampons without an applicator, as they are available in the widest range of absorbencies.
How is PCOS treated?
While there is no cure for PCOS, the symptoms can be managed and relieved through multiple approaches. 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.
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”.
Becca, 24, spoke about the treatment options following her PCOS diagnosis: ”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.
Are you still fertile with PCOS?
For many women, fertility after a PCOS diagnosis is a big concern, but the outcome isn’t always negative. 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.
However, PCOS doesn’t affect fertility in the same way between women who are diagnosed with the condition, and natural pregnancies are possible!
So, let’s all become more PCOS aware this September and as always — know what is normal for your body and don’t be afraid to voice any concerns!