September is designated as PCOS Awareness Month. PCOS, which stands for polycystic ovary syndrome, is the most common female reproductive disorder. It can start affecting women from around the time they begin to menstruate but generally subsides around menopause. If left untreated, however, PCOS can have long-term health repercussions throughout a woman’s life.

To give you an overview of the impact of PCOS, here is a rundown of PCOS by the numbers.

Five million, one in ten and 12%
It is estimated that approximately five million or one in ten U.S. women are affected by PCOS. That translates into 12 percent of the female population. It also is the most common form of female infertility. Genetics plays a role, so if your mother or sister was diagnosed with it, you might be too.

Two out of three symptoms
A diagnosis of PCOS is confirmed if a woman has two of the following three symptoms: absence of ovulation, high androgen (male sex hormones, such as testosterone) levels and/or multiple ovarian cysts. Unfortunately, many women are not diagnosed with PCOS until they seek the help of a reproductive endocrinologist because of infertility. However, they may have had persistent symptoms such as infrequent or absent periods, body/facial hair and acne, both due to testosterone, and weight gain.

50 to 70% have insulin resistance
It is estimated that 50 to 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, putting them at risk for diabetes because their body cannot use the insulin to break down sugars. High insulin levels also cause the ovaries to produce androgens. Medication and diet are two ways to control this.

Four long-term side effects
PCOS can increase a woman’s chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, endometrial cancer and depression. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that all women with PCOS get screened every two to five years for high blood sugar and every two years for high cholesterol.

PCOS symptoms can wreck havoc with a woman’s self-image, confidence, and feelings of femininity, emotional effects that can last a lifetime.

Control this number
One number women with PCOS should try to control is their weight. Though not everyone with PCOS is overweight and some are thin, obesity is a common characteristic. Lifestyle changes with a low carbohydrate diet and exercise can help keep PCOS symptoms under control; even a loss of five percent of body weight can make a difference. Eating evenly throughout the day can help lower blood glucose levels more uniformly.

In addition, doctors can prescribe metformin to help moderate insulin levels and fertility drugs, such as clomid and gonadotropins, to maintain ovulation. For those not trying to conceive, birth control pills can regulate menstruation and prevent the build up of the endometrial lining as well as keep acne and hair growth at bay.

Though PCOS cannot be cured, it can be controlled with proper medical and lifestyle interventions. In our next blog, we will discuss how PCOS affects fertility and what can be done to help women get pregnant.