8 myths about PCOS every woman should stop believing
What you need to know if you have this common condition — and the misconceptions you can kick to the curb forever.
Most women don’t learn about polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) unless they’ve had trouble getting pregnant. And that’s a shame, since PCOS isn’t just a fertility issue.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, a whopping 1 in 10 women of childbearing age have PCOS. It’s often linked to an imbalance of reproductive hormones. And this can lead to problems with the ovaries. Either eggs don’t develop the way they should, or they’re not released during ovulation.
But PCOS is so much more than that. “Women with PCOS have hormonal imbalances and metabolism problems that may affect their long-term health,” says Jane Frederick, MD. She’s a reproductive endocrinologist at HRC Fertility in Newport Beach, California.
Though PCOS is common, there are still a lot of myths floating around about what causes it and why a diagnosis matters. We asked experts to tackle them head-on.
(Another thing to tackle head-on: high prescription medication prices. Use our free prescription search tool to find coupons valid at over 64,000 pharmacies nationwide.)
Myth #1: PCOS matters only if you’re trying to get pregnant
Fact: It’s true that PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility in women. But it’s also a lifelong condition that can have widespread health impacts.
With PCOS, your body may have high amounts of 2 hormones: androgen (the “guy” hormone) and insulin (which helps regulate blood sugar). This may lead to many PCOS symptoms that can range from frustrating to downright life-altering. Symptoms can include:
- Irregular periods
- Extra hair in places you don’t want it (on the face, chest)
- Severe acne
- Ovarian cysts (fluid-filled sacs)
- Weight gain (especially around the belly)
Many people with PCOS also have insulin resistance, says Dr. Frederick. This means the body can’t use insulin well. And it can put women with PCOS at a much higher risk for serious health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that more than half of women with PCOS develop type 2 diabetes by age 40.
The risk for PCOS-related health problems increases as you get older. So knowing your risk and getting proper treatment can help you stay healthy long term.
Myth #2: You did something to cause PCOS
Fact: The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. But what we know for sure: “You are not to blame,” says Dr. Frederick. (And just to be clear, taking or stopping oral birth control pills does not cause PCOS, she adds.)
Instead, experts believe that several factors outside of your control may lead to developing PCOS. “Genetics are believed to play a role,” says Dr. Frederick. And it’s been shown that women who have a mother, sister or aunt with PCOS may be more likely to have the condition themselves.
Myth #3: PCOS is diagnosed only through a blood test
Fact: There’s no single test to diagnose PCOS, reports the Office on Women’s Health. Instead, your doctor will look at a number of tests and other factors. These may include a:
- Physical exam to look for hair loss or other signs of hormonal imbalance
- Pelvic exam to check if your ovaries are enlarged or swollen
- Blood test to check your androgen hormone levels, as well as other hormones
- Pelvic ultrasound to detect any cysts in your ovaries or changes in your uterine lining
Myth #4: You can never get pregnant if you have PCOS
Fact: This is one of the biggest myths and it’s absolutely false, says Lora Shahine, MD. She’s a reproductive endocrinologist at Pacific NW Fertility in Seattle.
“I've had too many patients say they heard this from doctors when they were first diagnosed with PCOS,” she says. “Some people may have trouble conceiving or take longer to conceive, especially if their ovulation is unpredictable and their periods are irregular. But by no means does PCOS mean you cannot have a baby.”
Myth #5: All patients with PCOS are overweight
Fact: The link between PCOS and weight is complicated. Some people with the condition have excess weight and report difficulty losing weight, but that’s not the case for everyone, says Dr. Shahine.
“There are many people with ‘lean PCOS’ who often go years without a diagnosis because they don’t fit the typical PCOS presentation of a patient with insulin resistance and weight gain,” she adds.
Myth #6: If you lose weight, you can get rid of PCOS
Fact: Losing weight won’t reverse the condition, but it can help women balance their hormone levels.
“Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS,” says Dr. Frederick. For now, the focus is on managing symptoms and reducing health risks. Treatment may involve medication (such as birth control pills) and healthy lifestyle changes. Your doctor may talk to you about how losing excess weight can help manage symptoms and reduce your risk of PCOS-related issues such as diabetes.
Related reading: Here’s how to save money on birth control pills.
Myth #7: All women with PCOS have ovarian cysts
Fact: Because of the name of the condition, many people believe that PCOS always comes with ovarian cysts. But that’s not the case, says Anuja Dokras, MD. She’s a PCOS expert and Endocrine Society spokeswoman based in Philadelphia.
To diagnose PCOS, doctors will check that you have at least 2 of these symptoms:
- Irregular periods
- High androgen hormone levels (that’s the male hormone we talked about earlier)
- Multiple small cysts on the ovaries
So having cysts isn’t required for a diagnosis. According to the CDC, lots of women without PCOS have ovarian cysts and lots of women with PCOS don’t have them.
Myth #8: If you have irregular periods, that means you have PCOS
Fact: Sure, PCOS is one cause of an irregular cycle. But it’s certainly not the only one, says Dr. Dokras. Other factors that can throw off Aunt Flo include stress, extreme dieting or exercising, and other hormone conditions such as thyroid disorders.
If you think you have PCOS, the best thing to do is talk with your doctor, says Dr. Dokras. This way, you can get the answers you need to live a full and symptom-free life.
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