Up to 10% of all women of childbearing age are affected by PCOS, a condition where the body overproduces male hormones, interfering with ovulation and ultimately increasing the risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. (Here are 7 things you need to know about PCOS.) Less than 50% of women with this condition are properly diagnosed, according to the nonprofit PCOS Foundation.
"It can be missed for years, especially if you were on the Pill in your 20s and/or 30s to avoid pregnancy," says David Keefe, MD, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center. While some women are diagnosed while trying to conceive (the disorder can cause infertility due to infrequent ovulation) "sometimes they're just given a medication like Clomid to induce ovulation and sent on their way," notes Keefe. That's worrisome, as about half of all women with PCOS will develop either prediabetes or diabetes before the age of 40. They also have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, and endometrial cancer.
Know your body. The most common symptom is irregular periods (your cycle might be 35 days or longer if you're not on the Pill). Other tip-offs include adult acne, facial or body hair, and thinning hair on your head. Your doctor can diagnose you with PCOS through a combination of a physical exam, medical history, blood tests to check for high androgens and/or blood sugar, and possibly an ultrasound to check your ovaries for cysts.
The good news is that if it's caught, PCOS can successfully be kept under control through a combo of lifestyle changes (a low-carb diet and exercise to help lower insulin levels is essential) and medications such as the diabetes drug metformin and the androgen-blocking drug Aldactone.