Ovarian Cysts

Fluid-filled swellings that grow on or in one or both ovaries

  • Most common between the ages of 30 and 45
  • Genetics and lifestyle are not significant factors

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that grow on or in the ovaries. Most ovarian cysts are noncancerous and not harmful, but a cyst may sometimes become cancerous (see Cancer of the ovary). Cancerous cysts are more likely to develop in women over the age of 40.

Ovarian cyst

This view through a laparoscope shows a large ovarian cyst next to the uterus. Most ovarian cysts are noncancerous.

What are the types?

There are many types of ovarian cyst. The most common type is a follicular cyst, in which one of the follicles, where eggs develop, grows and fills with fluid. This type of ovarian cyst may grow to 5 cm (2 in) in diameter and usually occurs singly. Multiple small cysts that develop in the ovaries are thought to be caused by a hormonal disorder, and this condition is known as polycystic ovary syndrome.

Less commonly, cysts may form in the corpus luteum, the yellow tissue that develops from a follicle after the release of an egg. These cysts can fill with blood and can grow to 6 cm (2 1 / 2 in).

A dermoid cyst is a cyst that contains cells that are normally found elsewhere in the body, such as skin and hair cells. A cystadenoma is a cyst that grows from one type of cell in the ovary. In rare cases, a single cystadenoma can fill the entire abdominal cavity.

What are the symptoms?

Often, ovarian cysts do not cause symptoms, but when there are symptoms, they may include:

  • Discomfort in the abdomen.

  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

  • A change in your usual menstrual pattern.

Large cysts can put pressure on the bladder, leading to urinary retention or a frequent need to pass urine.

Are there complications?

If an ovarian cyst ruptures or becomes twisted, severe abdominal pain, nausea, and fever may develop. Cysts may grow so large that the abdomen is distended. In rare cases, a cyst producing the sex hormone oestrogen may develop before puberty, which leads to early sexual development (see Abnormal puberty in females). Some ovarian cysts produce male sex hormones, which can cause the development of male characteristics, such as growth of facial hair (see Virilization).

What might be done?

Sometimes, ovarian cysts are only discovered when a pelvic examination is carried out during a routine checkup. If you have symptoms of a cyst, your doctor will perform a pelvic examination. You may also be sent for ultrasound scanning or for a laparoscopy to confirm the diagnosis and determine the size and position of the cyst. You may also have blood tests to give an indication of whether a cyst might be cancerous.

Ovarian cysts may disappear without treatment, although the size of a cyst may be monitored with regular ultrasound scans. Large or persistent cysts may be drained or removed. If there is a chance that the cyst is cancerous, it will be removed, leaving the ovary and fallopian tube if possible. Ovarian cysts may recur if the ovary is not removed.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top