Ovarian cysts are super common and usually nothing to worry about. But occasionally they grow bigger and don’t go away, which can cause problems.
What’s an ovarian cyst?
An ovarian cyst is a sac of fluid in or on an ovary. Most ovarian cysts are tiny, but they can range in size — from a fraction of an inch to several inches.
Who gets ovarian cysts?
Most people with ovaries have cysts at some point. You may be more likely to get ovarian cysts if you:
- get periods
- are pregnant
- have endometriosis
- have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which disproportionately affects Black women
- have a pelvic infection, like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- had ovarian cysts in the past
- are taking certain fertility medicines
Ovarian cysts are less common in people who have been through menopause. But when postmenopausal people get an ovarian cyst, it has a greater risk of being cancerous and causing ovarian cancer. Still, ovarian cancer is pretty rare at any age.
What causes ovarian cysts?
The most common type of ovarian cyst grows when you ovulate. It happens if the follicle from your ovary either doesn’t release an egg or doesn’t shrink down after releasing an egg, then builds up into a cyst.
- If you have endometriosis, ovarian cysts can form because tissue that’s similar to the kind that lines the inside your uterus grows outside it. This tissue can attach to your ovaries and form cysts.
- If you have PCOS, your ovaries produce hormones that cause many small cysts to form.
- If you have an infection in your reproductive organs and the infection spreads to your ovaries, it can lead to cysts.
- If you’re pregnant, your body produces high levels of hormones that can create cysts on an ovary to support the pregnancy until the placenta forms. Usually the cysts go away after your placenta forms, but if they don't it can become a problem.
- Some people are born with ovarian tissue that grew into a cyst. It can contain tissues that aren’t from your ovary, like fat cells, hair, teeth, skin, and bone. Unless it causes symptoms, you might never know you have it.
In rare cases, ovarian cysts are cancerous. It’s called ovarian cancer, and it’s more common in people who are older.
What are ovarian cyst symptoms?
Ovarian cysts usually don’t have symptoms, are very small, and go away on their own.
Sometimes benign (not cancerous) ovarian cysts can get big enough that they cause symptoms, including:
- bloating, pressure, or pain in your belly or pelvis that can be dull or sharp, and can come and go
- needing to pee more often
- trouble finishing a pee or poop
- pain during sex or during your period
- nausea and vomiting
- unusual vaginal bleeding (for you)
- unexplained weight gain
- breast tenderness
So, what size of ovarian cyst is dangerous? There’s no exact size that’s dangerous. What matters is if it’s causing symptoms that bother you and whether or not it’s cancerous.
If you’re having symptoms that bother you, make an appointment at your nearest Planned Parenthood health center.
It’s rare, but an ovarian cyst can cause sudden symptoms if it breaks open (ruptures) . If you feel sudden, intense pain on one side of your belly, are vomiting, feel faint, or have a fever, get medical help right away.
How do I find out if I have an ovarian cyst?
Getting regular wellness visits helps nurses and doctors find ovarian cysts early — and, if needed, remove them or provide other treatment.
In a routine wellness visit that includes a pelvic exam, your doctor or nurse feels for potential ovarian cysts. If they find cysts, they’ll probably take a “watchful waiting” approach.
- Watchful waiting means seeing if any symptoms happen during the next few months.
- Your nurse or doctor may recommend having another exam in a few months to see if the cyst went away or got bigger.
- Your nurse or doctor may recommend additional testing to figure out what’s going on. Tests may include pregnancy tests; hormone level tests; blood tests; and imaging tests, like an ultrasound.
If you think you might have an ovarian cyst, make an appointment at your nearest Planned Parenthood health center.
What happens if an ovarian cyst ruptures?
If an ovarian cyst bursts, it’s an emergency. It can feel like a sudden, severe pain in your belly. In addition to severe pain, it can cause heavy bleeding and life-threatening problems.
Call 911 right away if you have an ovarian cyst and have sharp, severe belly pain in one side, dizziness, fever, vomiting, and/or rapid breathing.
What ovarian cyst treatments are there?
You can’t do much to prevent ovarian cysts, but there are treatments. About 8% of people who get periods develop cysts that need treatment.
- Medicine: If you keep getting ovarian cysts that come and go and bother you, your doctor may prescribe hormonal birth control, like the pill. Hormonal birth control will stop ovulation and lower your chances of getting new cysts. They may also recommend prescription or over-the-counter pain medicine.
- Surgery: If you have a big cyst with symptoms, or which might be cancerous, your nurse or doctor may recommend surgery to remove it. You might also need surgery if you’re pregnant and you have a cyst on your ovary that doesn’t go away after your placenta forms. Generally surgery to treat ovarian cysts is laparoscopic, so it’s less invasive and very safe. If the cyst might be cancerous, a sample of the tissue may be sent to a lab. Learn about treatments for ovarian cancer.