What is The Difference between Ovarian Cysts and PCOS?

28 August 2019    by - Dr Pandelis Athanasias

Ovarian cysts and PCOS are related conditions with many of the same symptoms, meaning that women often confuse the two, or wrongly believe that they have PCOS when they do not.

The most significant difference between the two conditions is that PCOS results in a substantial hormonal imbalance, which is not generally the case with ovarian cysts. It is also possible for women to have multiple ovarian cysts without suffering from PCOS.

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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is a metabolic condition which affects 1 in 10 women and means that the ovaries have an abnormally large number of follicles on them.

These follicles are not harmful, but they can cause a hormonal imbalance, often resulting in several problems, such as irregular or no periods, weight gain, difficulty falling pregnant, excessive body hair, thinning of head hair and acne or oily skin. These symptoms will usually present themselves during their teenage years.

In order for a woman to be diagnosed with PCOS, she needs to have at least two of the following three features:

  • Irregular or lack of periods
  • High levels of male hormones
  • Polycystic ovaries, i.e. where ovaries are enlarged and contain several fluid-filled sacs (follicles)

More than half of the women affected do not have any symptoms, so it can be difficult to diagnose at the early stages. It is important to note that despite the name of the condition, women with PCOS do not usually produce cysts, but rather follicles.

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but it is often a hereditary trait and related to abnormal hormone levels, including high levels of insulin. Although PCOS has no known cure, the symptoms of PCOS can be treated. Medication will usually be prescribed to treat symptoms such as irregular periods, infertility and excessive hair growth. In more severe cases, a surgical procedure called laparoscopic ovarian drilling (LOD) may be required.

Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts are sacs filled with fluid which are present in or on the ovaries. They are very common, and as such, many women will develop them at some point in their lifetime.

Most ovarian cysts occur naturally as a result of the normal menstrual cycle (functional cysts) and during the childbearing years. Usually, these cysts are harmless and will disappear naturally on their own after a few months, without the need for medical attention.

Ovarian cyst symptoms are very similar to those found in women with PCOS, such as irregular or non-existent periods, acne and weight gain. Other ovarian cyst symptoms may include pelvic pain, high blood pressure, lower back pain, abdominal pressure and nausea.

It has been found that women with ovarian cysts usually do not have much difficulty getting pregnant, whereas it is common for those with PCOS to struggle.

Ovarian cysts can be identified during an ultrasound scan. Treatment for ovarian cysts will be dependent on:

  • The size and appearance of the cysts
  • The symptoms you are feeling
  • Whether or not you have been through menopause

Cysts often disappear without intervention or treatment, but in the more serious cases, such as if they are large or potentially cancerous, a procedure will be used to surgically remove the ovarian cysts.

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