Puberty can be a trying time in a young girl's life. Your daughter may struggle with acne or irregular periods. These are often normal coming-of-age signs. But they can sometimes indicate a serious condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS.
PCOS is a disorder of the endocrine system—the glands in your body that produce hormones. PCOS specifically elevates androgens. Referred to as male hormones, androgens are more abundant in men's bodies. Women make them, too, but typically in lower amounts.
An increase in a woman's androgen levels can disrupt the normal process of ovulation. The result: infrequent or absent monthly bleeding—the main symptom of PCOS. Other signs of the disorder may include:
Unwanted hair growth on the face and body
Cysts on the ovaries
Hair loss or thinning
Anxiety or depression
Health experts aren't sure what causes PCOS. But it often first manifests during adolescence. Girls with a family history of the condition are more likely to develop it.
PCOS can be hard to diagnose in adolescents. That's partly because puberty can mask symptoms. It's not unusual for healthy adolescent girls to have irregular periods for 1 to 2 years after menstruation begins. Acne and hair growth are also common during that time.
PCOS can raise a girl's risk for serious health problems. These include diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Girls and women with PCOS are also more likely to be obese. Scientists aren't sure if PCOS causes obesity or vice-versa. But they speculate more girls will develop the disorder in the future because of the growing prevalence of childhood obesity.
Talk with your child's doctor if you think your daughter may have PCOS. A physical exam and blood tests can help with the diagnosis. Your child's doctor may also perform a pelvic ultrasound. This imaging test uses sound waves to create an image on a computer screen. It can show if there are any cysts on the ovaries or abnormalities in the lining of the uterus.
PCOS can't be cured. Left untreated, it can cause fertility problems later in life. But treatments are available to help ease symptoms. If your daughter is overweight, losing excess pounds can improve symptoms and lower her risk for diabetes. Eating right, exercising, and not smoking can also protect her from future heart disease and other complications.
Several medications can help control symptoms. Birth control pills can regulate periods and reduce androgen levels. The drug metformin can limit production of the androgen testosterone. It can also help manage diabetes, if needed. Other medications can be prescribed for acne and excess hair growth.
Your daughter may also benefit from a support group. Concerns about appearance can damage self-esteem. An outlet for her feelings may help alleviate depression and anxiety.
Click here to read more about PCOS.