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Around 20 per cent of all female infertility is related to ovulation – the release of eggs from the ovaries. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work. It affects up to 10 per cent of all women between the ages of 15 and 50 and is particularly common among women with ovulation problems (an incidence of about 75 per cent).

The symptoms of PCOS usually become apparent in your late teens or early twenties. Most women do not suffer from any of the PCOS symptoms and only discover they have this problem, when they fail to become pregnant. Not all women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) have all of the symptoms. Each symptom can vary from mild to severe.

There are three features which lead to a woman being diagnosed with PCOS. Even if only two of them are present, this is enough to confirm the diagnosis. The features of PCOS include:

• A number of cysts that develop around the edge of the ovaries (polycystic ovaries)

• A failure in the release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation)

• A higher level of male hormones than normal, or male hormones that are more active than normal

These can lead to the following symptoms:

• Excessive body hair (hirsutism)

• Irregular or light periods

• Problems getting pregnant (infertility)

• Weight gain

• Acne 

• Hair loss from the head

While it's not certain if women are born with this condition, PCOS seems to run in families. This means that something that induces the condition is inheritable, and therefore influenced by one or more genes. Women who are overweight or who have a family history of diabetes and high cholesterol are also more at risk.

Polycystic ovaries contain a large number of harmless cysts that are no bigger than 8mm each. Normal ovaries have only about half this number of cysts.

The cysts are under-developed follicles which contain eggs that haven't developed properly. Often in PCOS, these follicles are unable to release an egg, meaning ovulation doesn't take place.

Many women have polycystic ovaries without having the syndrome (without the symptoms). Some women have the syndrome, but have normal-looking ovaries on ultrasound.

There's no cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can be treated. Specific types of contraceptive pill may be prescribed to help regulate the menstrual cycle and improve hair growth. Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, may help to control some of the symptoms.

There are various treatment options for infertility caused by PCOS, which includes medication to increase ovulation and, in some cases, surgery is often undertaken.

It is encouraging to note that many women, who suffer fertility problems due to PCOS, can still have a baby.

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