Firstly: what exactly is PCOS? PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and it is the leading cause of female infertility. The condition can affect anyone with ovaries – including cis women, trans men and non-binary people.
According to the NHS website, there are three key factors which determine whether you have PCOS, and if you have at least two of these factors then you may be diagnosed with the condition:
- Polycystic ovaries – when the ovaries become swollen and contain fluid-filled sacs (follicles) surrounding the eggs. These enlarged follicles are often unable to release eggs, which leads to problems with infertility in those who have the condition.
- Excess androgen – a hormone which can cause excess facial or body hair.
- Irregular periods.
Symptoms and treatment
Though these three factors are usually what doctors will look at when diagnosing PCOS, there can be other symptoms as well, including weight gain, high levels of insulin, hair loss on the head, oily skin, and often trouble with mental health such as anxiety and depression too.
What’s more, in the long term PCOS can affect other health outcomes as well. According to the PCOS Awareness Month website, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome can lead to other serious conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and endometrial cancer among others.
Although there isn’t a cure for PCOS yet, there is help available to manage some of the symptoms: hormonal treatment can help with hair growth/loss, weight gain and acne, and the NHS advises that if you maintain a healthy weight and balanced diet it can be significant in alleviating some of the more visible symptoms. For fertility, there is a simple surgical procedure that can be performed on the ovaries to help prevent excess release of androgen and make it easier for you to conceive.
How can PCOS affect your sex life?
As we’re a sexual lifestyle website, naturally one of our key questions is around how PCOS may affect your sex life, and how those who have it may be able to manage the difficulties that arise.
The first thing to note is that many people who have PCOS also struggle with anxiety and depression, and we know that mental health issues can often affect your sex life. Some of the physical symptoms (hair growth/loss, acne, weight gain) can cause significant body image issues which may make it difficult to fully embrace your own body. Sex blogger Girl on the Net, who works for us here at Hot Octopuss, has PCOS and explained how the condition has affected her body confidence and sex life:
“I really want to say that the side-effects of PCOS aren’t a problem for me. Sure, I have more body hair than the average woman, but I am also pretty aware of the unrealistic expectations that society places on female beauty and I reject the idea that we should all look smooth and photoshopped. Knowing this doesn’t make it easier to navigate, though, because the world is still far behind where it should be when it comes to body acceptance. Not only are women expected to look a certain way, we’re also expected to love our bodies for what they are and embrace body positivity. Intellectually, I can and do embrace body positivity, but emotionally and individually I still find myself weeping in the bathroom for a couple of days every month having covered myself from neck to ankle in Veet.
“That’s the downside of how PCOS has affected my sex life: it means I will never quite have the confidence in my body that I would like. Though perhaps it’s less the fault of PCOS – a really common condition – and more the fault of society. I’ll leave that one up to you.
“The other significant way that PCOS has affected my sex life is that without any external hormonal input (like the Pill, for instance), I have never really had a clue when my periods were going to arrive. I’m not averse to period sex – in fact I am usually raging with horn during the middle of my period – but it certainly would help to know roughly when the damn thing was going to arrive, so I could plan my sex life accordingly. I suspect I’ve also had more than my fair share of pregnancy scares, as ‘I never know when my period’s coming’ quite swiftly turns into ‘eek it’s been two months since my last one, I should probably do a pregnancy test!’.”
Naturally fertility concerns can have a huge impact on your sex life too. Research shows that infertility can impact sexual self-esteem, as well as cause high levels of stress. If you are having sex in order to get pregnant, having trouble conceiving can mean sex starts to feel like a chore. If you’re struggling to enjoy sex, we have some advice here on the blog about reclaiming your sex life which you may find useful, as well as some advice on reducing stress, which may also help you to combat some of the external factors that are preventing you from enjoying the sex you’re having.
Naturally we’d always advise you talk to your doctor about this as well (more on this below!) but if your PCOS is affecting your sex life and relationship, there is plenty of advice over on the Relate website, where you can also explore options for counselling if you think that may be beneficial to you.
What to do if you think you have PCOS
The first thing to note is that if you think you may have some of the symptoms of PCOS, talk to your doctor. It is estimated that around 70% of people with the condition go undiagnosed, but your doctor can help to establish if you may have PCOS by doing blood tests (to check for elevated androgen levels), internal ultrasounds (to look directly at the ovaries) and ask you questions about other symptoms such as irregular periods.
If you do have PCOS, your doctor should be able to talk you through some of the options mentioned above, depending on which of the symptoms is causing you the most distress. You can also find lots more information via the website links we’ve included above, and if you want to spread the word about this condition during PCOS awareness month, the graphics we’ve embedded in this blog post are available at PCOSawarenessmonth.org