The Global Impact of PCOS: 100 Million Women Affected, Yet Underfunded And Underdiagnosed

By Aanya Munagala

In a world where so much about women’s health is still being discovered, there is a silent villain infiltrating the lives of millions: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Historically, women’s health has been an underfunded and under researched field. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the National Institute of Health began including women in research studies. During this shift to more inclusive research, PCOS became a topic of discussion.

PCOS is a condition in which the ovaries produce too much or too little androgens, male sex hormones that women have. There are varying symptoms, and PCOS can look different on people with different genes. Some of the more common symptoms include weight gain/loss, infertility, abnormal periods, and hair growth/loss. Although the symptoms can be debilitating, it is the combination of mental stresses and physical impacts that make PCOS a particularly harmful disorder in the realm of women’s health.

Doctors and researchers in general tend to focus more on how PCOS can physically affect someone, while ignoring the mental repercussions. Managing infertility at a young age can cause other disorders like depression. Similarly, extreme weight gain or weight loss could lead to a myriad of eating disorders.

As someone who has experienced PCOS symptoms, I can confidently say that the actual symptoms were easier to manage than the anxiety that came with them. Throughout my life, I’ve lived alongside women who have struggled with conditions like PCOS and even before the diagnosis, the questions that bring you to the doctors office are debilitating. Questioning hair loss and weight fluctuation are incredibly stressful and have impacted my life and the lives of family members in a considerable way.

It isn’t just the actual condition that makes it so harmful, it’s how PCOS can lead to other issues. There are numerous conditions like PCOS but the reason why PCOS stands out is because of how common it is. According to the CDC, between 6 and 12 percent of women of childbearing age have PCOS. This is up to 5 million people. 

When doctors diagnose PCOS, there are multiple tests they can do: blood tests, pelvic exams, or ultrasounds. It is common for women to go to the doctor for menstrual problems and then be asked to get a blood test. These blood tests check for hormone imbalances that can signal conditions like PCOS. Like many other disorders, the process of receiving a diagnosis can be relieving but also stress-inducing.

For myself and the women around me, it took years of blood tests, appointments, and ultrasounds to actually get a diagnosis. The process was tiring and discouraging. After a diagnosis, there are a few different treatment options depending on what a patient’s symptoms look like. However, it’s important to note that these are all treatment options, not cures. There is no cure for PCOS. It is something women have to live with for their entire lives.

One of the most popular and common treatment options is birth control pills; birth control can control and monitor hormone levels, thereby regulating androgen levels. In most cases, birth control can help symptoms like irregular periods and acne, but birth control itself has many possible side effects, including mood swings and weight gain. Additionally, birth control is really only an option for women uninterested in getting pregnant in the future.

For these reasons, many women avoid going on birth control, but women with PCOS might not have many options. As someone who has been told by the doctors that birth control may be appropriate for me, I’ve struggled with whether the pill is worth the potential side effects. Women with PCOS are also at higher risk for developing other conditions like type 2 diabetes, uterine cancer, and heart/blood vessel problems. Ultimately, it’s great that there are treatments available for women dealing with PCOS, but the treatment options have costs of their own.

The main reason why PCOS can be considered the villain of women’s health is because of how widespread it is. According to the WHO, PCOS is one of the commonest hormonal disturbances affecting women of reproductive age. The condition affects an estimated 8–13% of women of reproductive age (approximately 116 million women). In developing countries around the world, women are unable to access the appropriate healthcare to treat and diagnose their PCOS. In fact, up to 70% of women who have PCOS around the world remain undiagnosed.

The sheer size of the PCOS problem has turned it into a significant public health issue. Some ethnicities and racial groups are at higher risks for PCOS which highlights the fact that there are significant discrepancies in public health research.

Despite being such a serious issue, there has still been limited research on finding a cure. This is an area that needs improvement soon. Medical professionals need to start studying the differences in PCOS over ethnic lines and more effective treatments need to become available to women struggling with this condition. According to the National Institute of Health, PCOS has consistently become more common over the world. This creates a sense of urgency that must be acted upon soon.

During a time when there is so much medical knowledge and technology around us, I feel disappointed that women’s health is still a field with such limited attention. PCOS has quickly become a sort of epidemic, which makes it one of the worst conditions in women’s health. It’s time we rewrite the narrative surrounding women’s health and consider PCOS an opportunity to explore equitable and empathetic healthcare around the world.

Although PCOS can be discouraging, it’s important to take advantage of available resources and accept help when possible. Sites like PCOS Awareness Association provide women with the ability to talk one-on-one with OB-GYNs who can answer any questions they may have. This organization also has a crisis text line which allows women to talk about anything from eating disorders to suicide. Teen clinics can also be a useful resource to search for in your city.

Teens looking for affordable birth control or other reproductive health help can often find it in teen clinics without having to go through the potential trouble of going to a primary care provider. For women struggling with PCOS, it’s vital to remember there are resources out there to help and although it can be debilitating, there is a community of women who also deal with PCOS and together, we can combat this issue.

Aanya Munagala is a passionate writer focusing on women’s health. She is a current high school
student based in California and is interested in exploring the field of journalism within public
health. She enjoys reading, researching, and baking during her free time. You can follow her on
instagram @aanyamunagala