7 Women's Health Problems Doctors Miss

You may have a treatable autoimmune disease whose symptoms are often ignored or missed by docs. Here's what to do about it.

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Polycystic ovary syndrome

What is it, and who gets it?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age (as many as 1 in every 10 women of childbearing age will develop it) and the leading cause of infertility—stems from having levels of androgens, or male hormones, that are too high. The androgen overload is actually caused by an imbalance in insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar.

"Insulin is a growth hormone, and it makes you fat," says Katherine Sherif, MD, co-director of the Center for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Excess insulin bombards the ovaries, causing them to produce too much testosterone and develop cysts. Half of all women with PCOS end up with prediabetes or diabetes.

How does it feel?
Besides irregular periods, or none at all, you may notice more hair on your face, chest, back, and limbs. Also typical are acne, baldness, and rapid, substantial weight gain (more than 10 pounds a year) that seems impossible to control.

How is it diagnosed?
No single test does the job. Instead, the doc needs to know your symptoms. Then she'll check your reproductive organs for signs of masses or growths using a pelvic or vaginal ultrasound and physical exam. Blood tests are used to measure levels of glucose and several hormones; they also can exclude abnormalities, like hypothyroidism, that mimic PCOS.

How is it treated?
There's no cure, so treatment is designed to manage the symptoms and prevent infertility, diabetes, or heart disease. Birth control pills help regulate menstrual cycles, lower androgen levels, reduce hair growth, and clear up acne. Metformin, which controls blood glucose and lowers testosterone production, can help you lose weight.

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