As much as women talk about their “monthly periods,” not all women get their menstrual flow at the exact same time each month. For many women, hearing about these mythical, perfectly timed periods is a thing to envy. It’s not unheard of for some women to go six weeks without a period one cycle and then three weeks the next. They may skip a month (or three) altogether.
A common cause of these irregular periods is a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. This condition, which affects five to 10 percent of U.S. women under age 45, involves an excess of androgen hormones. Androgen is sometimes called a “male hormone” since it promotes the development of typically male traits, like facial hair, a deepened voice, and male-pattern baldness.
All women have small amounts of androgen, but women with PCOS have an imbalance of androgen and estrogen. This imbalance can affect several parts of the body and lead to the following symptoms of PCOS.
Irregular or absent periods, since ovulation requires adequate levels of estrogen
Excess hair growth typically associated with men, like on the face or back
Acne on the face, chest, and back, which may be persistent and not respond to treatment
Hair loss, like male-pattern baldness
Weight gain, or difficulty losing weight, especially around the waist
Darker, thick skin around creases of the skin, like the neck, groin, and under breasts, a condition called acanthosis nigricans
Cysts on at least one ovary (seen from an ultrasound), hence the term “polycystic ovaries”
Ovulation is necessary to get pregnant, and PCOS is the most common cause of infertility from the absence of ovulation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Many women may shrug off PCOS symptoms for years and won’t realize they have PCOS until they are trying to get pregnant and having problems.
Even if having a baby is the furthest thing from your mind, you should still seek treatment if you’re experiencing PCOS symptoms. PCOS is associated with serious medical issues like insulin resistance, and it can increase your risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.