If you’ve skipped a period or two (and know you’re not pregnant) and have been breaking out like you’re a teenager again, it’s easy to chalk it all up to stress. But something more serious may be going on, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a stealth health issue caused by a hormonal imbalance and marked by a series of small cysts on the ovaries.
Five to 10 percent of women of childbearing age are affected by the condition, but less than half of women are diagnosed, according to the PCOS Foundation. That means millions of women have PCOS and don’t even know it. To shed some light on this silent disease, here are the most common not-so-obvious signs of the hormonal disorder. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, bring them up with your gynecologist or general practitioner and get them evaluated.
1. Your cycle is all over the place.
Unpredictable menstrual cycles or skipping several periods are one of the hallmarks of PCOS. “Our menstrual cycle is like a vital sign,” says Maryam Siddiqui, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics-gynecology at the University of Chicago Medicine. “It tells us if our metabolism is in a good state; if you’re too thin, overweight, or stressed, that can throw your cycles off. Having irregular periods or more likely, skipping multiple periods could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance like PCOS.” Menstrual irregularities like these should raise a red flag and warrant a doctor’s attention.
2. You’re growing hair in unexpected places.
With PCOS, the ovaries produce excessive amounts of a type of hormones called androgens, which stimulate hair growth. We’re not talking about the hairs on your head. “You’ll get hair growth in funny places—around the nipples, on your chest, the inside of your thighs, and your belly,” says Siddiqui. “Places were women don’t typically have a lot of hair growth.”
Those same high levels of androgens also trigger acne. The hormones boost sebum production, and the combo of excess oil and old skin tissue plugs pores. To add insult to injury, bacteria that flourish on sebum increase, triggering inflammation.
4. There’s a dark “ring” around your neck.
You might blame it on a cheap necklace leaving a ring of residue on your skin at first, but PCOS can cause a stubborn darkening of the skin around the back of your neck. “It’s a velvety, dark discoloration that doesn’t wash off,” explains Siddiqui. The pigmentation and skin texture changes can also appear under your arms and around the vulva.
5. Your belly is getting bigger and you don’t know why.
Unexplained, persistent weight gain, particularly around the abdomen, is a sign of the hormonal disorder. Although it’s not fully understood why weight gain is a symptom, insulin resistance appears to play a role. “With PCOS, you can have trouble metabolizing blood sugar, known as insulin resistance,” explains Siddiqui. “When you have insulin resistance, your pancreas has to work really hard and make a lot of insulin just to lower your blood sugar. That is linked to weight gain and central obesity.” (Women with PCOS are at higher risk for developing diabetes.)
6. Those annoying skin tags keep popping up.
Although it’s not fully understood why, those flesh-colored nubs of excess skin tend to crop up around the neck area and under the arms of women with PCOS, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s worth noting, though, that skin tags, which are benign and can be triggered by friction, are also common in people who don’t have PCOS, so don’t automatically freak out if you have them.
7. You’re having trouble getting pregnant.
The hormonal imbalance interferes with the body’s ability to ovulate normally, which is essential for pregnancy to occur. So it’s no surprise that PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility. In fact, it’s responsible for 70 percent of infertility problems in women who have trouble ovulating, according to the PCOS Foundation.