How to Test for PCOS

You’ve got symptoms that are worrying you: missed or irregular periods, excess body hair, and maybe even infertility.

You could have Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, a condition in which the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of the hormone androgens.1 But how do you know? By seeking medical attention. Here’s how to test for PCOS.

The Hormonal Imbalance of PCOS

PCOS is a condition in which women have an excess of the male sex hormones androgens, which are usually present in women in small amounts.1 This problem with hormones typically happens during the reproductive years. Irregular periods are a common side effect: you may not have periods very often, or you may have periods that last many days.2 

The name polycystic ovary syndrome describes the numerous small cysts  or fluid-filled sacs that form in the ovaries.1 These small sacs of fluid that develop along the outer edge of the ovary contain immature eggs called follicles. The follicles fail to regularly release eggs—although not all women develop these cysts.2

Besides irregular periods and developing cysts, here are other symptoms that could signal PCOS:1

  • Excess body hair, including on the chest, stomach, and back, known as hirsutism
  • Weight gain, especially around the abdomen
  • Acne or oily skin
  • Male-pattern baldness or thinning hair
  • Infertility
  • Skin tags on the neck or armpits 
  • Dark or thick skin patches on the back of the neck, in the armpits, and under the breasts

How to Test for PCOS

If you have one or more of those symptoms, a doctor will help with diagnosis. There isn’t one single test, but instead several ways how to test for PCOS:

  • A physical exam, including checking your blood pressure and discussing your symptoms, to rule out other possible causes3
  • An ultrasound scan to see whether you have a high number of follicles in your ovaries—those fluid-filled sacs in which eggs develop3
  • Blood and hormone tests to look for excess hormone production, and determine if it is caused by PCOS or another hormone-related condition3
  • A blood test to screen for diabetes and high cholesterol3

There’s also the need to meet two of these three criteria to determine the diagnosis:

1. Those irregular periods, such as heavy periods, or missed periods—which could be due to missed ovulation. If your ovaries are affected by PCOS, they may not release eggs, which also keeps you from becoming pregnant.4

2. Signs of higher-than-normal levels of androgens, such as unwanted hair growth on your face, back, chest, and in other places where men typically grow hair. The hair on your head might also be thinning or falling out.4

3. Collections of 12 or more egg follicles or cysts on your ovaries that may be larger than normal. Some women without PCOS may also have cysts, but typically not a number as high as 12; and, some women with PCOS don’t have any cysts.4

An early diagnosis is important, too, since PCOS can cause health problems such as pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated total cholesterol, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and infertility.5

It can also be difficult to know if you have PCOS, and diagnosis may take time, since the symptoms are varied and sometimes similar to other conditions. You may not realize there’s a link between unpredictable periods, weight gain, and adult acne, for instance. Some women may have several symptoms while others have few. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about any and all of your health issues and concerns.5

See a Doctor 

If you have one or more symptoms of PCOS, then visit a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. Use our Physician Finder and learn how to test for PCOS. A physician near you with expertise in women’s health can help with early diagnosis and treatment, which may lower the risk of long-term complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.2