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Dr. Sharon Sung, St. Luke's Hospital



Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome shouldn't be ignored

Many women experience a skipped period once in a while. Stress, illness and exercise can all lead to missed periods, and that's perfectly normal. Sometimes, though, irregular periods can be a sign of something else, especially if it happens frequently.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome — or PCOS — is a disease in which the causes aren't entirely known, but its consequences can be serious. Women with the condition have abnormal periods and high levels of male hormones call androgens. Instead of the normal hormonal signals that tell the ovaries to pick one egg each month to grow and release, with PCOS, a woman's body is often unable to single out one egg. This leads to the development of many small cysts, or baby eggs, in the ovaries.

Because a woman's menstrual cycles are tied to the release of her eggs, the process called ovulation, a woman with PCOS has irregular periods or no periods at all. Some women with the condition can also have problems getting pregnant. In fact, PCOS affects approximately five percent of women of reproductive age and is one of the most common causes of female infertility.

The increase in androgens shows itself in annoying physical signs that women might ignore. It can cause the growth of coarse, dark hairs on the face, chest, stomach or thighs. It can also result in oily skin or acne that can be hard to treat, as well as darkened patches or thickened skin on the neck and underarms.

Beyond being annoying, PCOS can also lead to dangerous health problems. Women with PCOS can be at higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The effect of the condition on a woman's periods can also cause the lining of the uterus (endometrium) to become too thick, instead of shedding like it should during a normal period, which can put her at increased risk for endometrial cancer.

PCOS can and should be treated, and women with the condition need to be watched closely for potential health problems. Women who suspect they have any of these symptoms should talk with their healthcare provider.

Dr. Sharon Sung specializes in obstetrics and gynecology at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-878-7333.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 7, 2013.