What are the health risks of PCOS?

The ‘cysts’ in polycystic ovaries are not harmful, do not require surgical removal and do not lead to ovarian cancer. However, the abnormal menstrual cycles in some women with PCOS can make them more susceptible to certain health problems in later life.

Women who have very infrequent periods – fewer than four a year – may have an increased risk of developing endometrial cancer, if the womb lining (endometrium) becomes too thick. Fortunately, this type of cancer is still quite rare and the risk can be minimised, and probably eliminated, by using appropriate treatments to regulate periods. Possible treatments include the oral contraceptive pill (either combined pill or mini pill), progestogen tablets or a progestogen releasing coil.

Women with PCOS who have insulin resistance have an increased risk of developing a type of diabetes known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes (type 2 diabetes). This is much more likely to occur in women who are overweight, but can sometimes occur in women of normal weight too.

Women with insulin resistance may also be at risk of developing heart disease in later life. However, although risk factors for heart disease may be increased with PCOS, there is, as yet, no clear evidence that heart attacks are more common in women with the condition than in those who do not have PCOS. These risks can be reduced to a large extent by preventive measures such as good nutrition and exercise. Preventive measures are particularly important for women who are very overweight, and for women who have a family history of diabetes or heart disease.

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