Navigation

Ovarian cysts

Expert reviewer, Mr Yemi Kuponiyi, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist
Next review due September 2024

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that develop in or on your ovaries. They’re quite common and you can get them at any age.

Most ovarian cysts don’t cause any symptoms and they’re usually benign (non-cancerous). Many will go away without treatment. But sometimes an ovarian cyst needs to be removed in a surgical procedure. This may be because the cyst is large, is causing symptoms or there’s a risk it might be cancerous.

An image showing the female reproductive system

Types of ovarian cyst

There are lots of different types of ovarian cyst. These can be split into two groups: functional cysts and pathological cysts.

Functional cysts

Most ovarian cysts are functional cysts. This means that they develop as part of your usual menstrual cycle. They don’t happen after the menopause.

Each month, your ovary produces several follicles (tiny fluid-filled sacs). One of these will mature and release an egg. After releasing the egg, the follicle normally changes into something called the corpus luteum. This releases hormones that help the lining of your uterus (womb) prepare for pregnancy. If the egg isn’t fertilised, the corpus luteum begins to break down.

The two main types of functional cyst form at different stages in this cycle.

  • A follicular cyst can happen if a follicle doesn’t release an egg but carries on growing.
  • A corpus luteum cyst can form if the corpus luteum doesn’t break down. It may continue to grow and become filled with blood.

 

Pathological cysts

These may happen because of an overgrowth of cells. You may hear these types of ovarian cyst referred to as tumours. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re cancerous. Most aren’t. To find out more about ovarian cysts and cancer, see our FAQ: Does having an ovarian cyst mean I have cancer?

You can also get cysts on your ovaries if you have endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Symptoms of ovarian cysts

Most ovarian cysts don’t cause any symptoms, so you may not realise you have one. But, depending on the type you have, ovarian cyst symptoms may include:

  • pain or discomfort in your lower abdomen (tummy)
  • pain during sex
  • needing to pee more often or urgently
  • finding it more difficult to poo
  • feeling pressure in your back passage that makes you feel you need to go to the toilet
  • feeling bloated
  • getting indigestion or heartburn or feeling very full after you eat
  • having painful periods or a change in the pattern of your periods

 

These can be symptoms of other problems as well as ovarian cysts. If you have any of these symptoms or are worried, contact your GP for advice. For information about symptoms that need urgent medical help, see our section on complications.

Diagnosis of ovarian cysts

Most cysts on your ovaries don't cause any symptoms. You may only find out you’ve got one if you’re having tests such as an ultrasound scan.

If you see your GP because you’ve got symptoms of an ovarian cyst, they’ll ask you about these. They’ll then examine your abdomen (tummy). Your GP may also examine you internally with a vaginal examination.

Your GP may recommend the following tests.

  • Transvaginal ultrasound. An ultrasound probe is placed into your vagina to produce a clear picture of your ovaries.
  • Transabdominal ultrasound. This is a scan over your lower abdomen to check for any problems around your pelvic area.
  • Blood tests to help rule out cancer, including a test for a substance called CA-125. Your level of CA-125 can be high if you have ovarian cancer, but it may also be raised in other conditions.

 

Depending on the results, your GP may refer you to a gynaecologist. This is a doctor who specialises in women’s reproductive health.

Treatment of ovarian cysts

If you have an ovarian cyst, you may not need any treatment. Whether or not you need treatment will depend on:

  • the type of cyst
  • how large it is
  • if you have symptoms
  • if you’ve been through the menopause

 

Your personal preferences will also be considered.

'Watchful waiting'

If your ovarian cyst is small and isn’t causing any problems, your doctor may suggest keeping a close eye on it for a while with ultrasound scans. This is called ‘watchful waiting’. Most small cysts on your ovaries disappear on their own and don't cause any problems. So, this approach helps you avoid having treatment you don’t need.

Your doctor will discuss with you when you should have a repeat ultrasound scan. This may be:

  • after a year if you’re still having periods
  • every four to six months for a year if you’ve been through the menopause

 

You may also be asked to have another blood test for CA-125. If your ovarian cyst doesn’t go away, your gynaecologist may then recommend surgery to remove it.

Pregnancy

Ovarian cysts during pregnancy nearly always go away without treatment. Your doctor will usually only recommend surgery if the cyst is causing symptoms or is very large.

Surgery

If your cyst is large, causing symptoms or doesn’t go away, your doctor will probably suggest you have surgery to remove it. They‘ll also recommend surgery if there’s a risk your cyst may be ovarian cancer.

There are two ways of carrying out surgery for an ovarian cyst:

  • keyhole surgery (laparoscopy)
  • open surgery (laparotomy)

 

You’re most likely to be offered keyhole surgery, which is usually done as a day-case procedure.

Holding hands icon Living with endometriosis? Looking for support?

The endometriosis support page in our Women's Health Hub offers a wide range of expert advice, information and tools. Find out more about endometriosis support >

Holding hands iconLiving with endometriosis? Looking for support?

Causes of ovarian cysts

Most ovarian cysts form in response to hormonal changes in your body. So, things that affect your hormone levels can sometimes lead to cysts forming. These include:

  • using progestogen contraception – this includes the progestogen-only pill, the intrauterine system (the coil – for example, Mirena) and the contraceptive implant
  • being pregnant
  • taking hormones used to treat infertility
  • taking hormone therapy (tamoxifen) – for instance, for breast cancer
  • having an underactive thyroid

 

You can also get ovarian cysts if you have endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Complications of ovarian cysts

Having an ovarian cyst doesn’t usually cause any serious problems. The two main complications of ovarian cysts are described here.

  • Torsion. This is when the cyst causes your ovary to twist, which cuts off the blood supply to your ovary. You will get severe tummy pain, which may come and go. Ovarian cyst torsion is more common with larger cysts (over 4 cm) and if you haven’t been through the menopause yet.
  • Rupture. This is when the cyst suddenly bursts, often during exercise or when you’re having sex. Ruptured ovarian cyst symptoms include sudden, severe tummy pain, vaginal bleeding and nausea. You may also be sick, and you may faint.

 

If you have been diagnosed with an ovarian cyst and get sudden, severe lower tummy pain, go to your nearest A&E department straightaway. You may need to have surgery.

Frequently asked questions

  • An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that develops in or on your ovary. They may occur naturally as part of your menstrual cycle or because of an overgrowth of cells. Most ovarian cysts don’t cause any symptoms and go away on their own without treatment. But sometimes, they may cause symptoms or need to be removed.

  • Most ovarian cysts develop naturally as part of your menstrual cycle. Others may develop because of an overgrowth of cells. They usually form because of hormonal changes in your body.

    Ovarian cysts can also be caused if you have another health condition such as endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). For more information, see our sections on types and causes of ovarian cysts.

  • Most ovarian cysts don’t cause any symptoms and go away on their own without treatment. But sometimes, ovarian cysts may cause symptoms including pain in your lower tummy, bloating and painful periods. For more information on this, see our section on symptoms of ovarian cysts. Occasionally, an ovarian cyst can rupture or twist, causing severe pain in your tummy. If this happens, go to A&E immediately.

  • Probably not – most ovarian cysts are benign, which means they aren’t cancerous.

    • About one in 1,000 ovarian cysts are found to be cancerous in women who have not yet gone through the menopause.
    • About three in 1,000 ovarian cysts turn out to be cancerous in women over the age of 50.

     

    You’ll have a number of tests to check whether your ovarian cyst is benign or cancerous. For more information, see our section on diagnosis.

  • Small ovarian cysts don't usually affect your fertility. Most ovarian cysts are small and go away without treatment. In some cases, ovarian cysts need to be removed by surgery. If at all possible, only the cyst will be removed and your ovary won’t be. If you do have to have an ovary removed, you can still get pregnant if your remaining ovary is working normally.

    However, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are conditions that can cause ovarian cysts and can also cause problems with fertility.

  • Doctors used to prescribe the combined oral contraceptive pill for ovarian cysts, hoping this would make the cysts shrink. But we now know that this doesn’t work. However, if you keep having complications from an ovarian cyst, your doctor may offer you oral contraceptives to prevent ovulation. This may help reduce your risk of complications in future.

  • Many women have one or more cysts on their ovaries at some point in their lives. These often cause no symptoms and go away without treatment. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the name given to a collection of symptoms caused by abnormalities in the way your body produces and manages sex hormones. Having many small cysts on your ovaries can be just one aspect of this syndrome.

  • Not usually. The most common type of ovarian cyst is relatively small and is unlikely to affect your weight. But feeling bloated can be a symptom of having an ovarian cyst. This might make you feel as though you’ve put on weight.

    If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), you may put on weight as part of that condition.



Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

  •  

    Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • Ovarian cysts. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed June 2021
    • Ovarian cyst. Patient information from BMJ. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last published July 2021
    • Ovarian cysts. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated December 2018
    • Polycystic ovarian syndrome. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated September 2019
    • Ovarian cyst rupture. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated December 2018
    • Infertility – female. Patient. patient.info, last edited April 2016
    • Benign ovarian masses. MSD Manuals. msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision March 2021
    • Female reproductive endocrinology. MSD Manuals. msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision March 2019
    • Desogestrel. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, accessed July 2021
    • Levonorgestrel. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, accessed July 2021
    • Etonogestrel. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, accessed July 2021
    • Grimes DA, Jones LB, Lopez LM, et al. Oral contraceptives for functional ovarian cysts. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014; 29 (4). doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006134.pub5
    • Ovarian cysts before the menopause. Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, published 20123
    • Management of suspected ovarian masses in premenopausal women. Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, last reviewed 2014
    • The management of ovarian cysts in postmenopausal women. Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, published 2016
    • Recovering well. Information for you after a laparoscopy. Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. www.rcog.org.uk, published October 2015
    • Ovarian cysts. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. acog.org, accessed July 2021
    • Personal communication, Mr Yemi Kuponiyi, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, August 2021
  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, September 2021
    Expert reviewer, Mr Yemi Kuponiyi, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist
    Next review due September 2024

ajax-loader