What you should know about ovarian cysts

January 29, 2014 Swedish Women's Health Team

a group of women walking and talking after outdoor exercise


In this article:

  • Most ovarian cysts are harmless, caused by natural fluctuations in the monthly menstrual cycle.

  • Cysts larger than 3 centimeters may be benign growths or, less commonly, cancer.

  • A Swedish gynecologist can help you determine the nature of an ovarian cyst.

Finding out there is a cyst on the ovary is often a concerning experience for women. They aren't sure what it means for them or what will need to be done.
A woman has two ovaries, which produce eggs and produce female hormones, allowing her to get pregnant. These hormones cause the lining of the uterus to grow, and then shed (as the period). Ovaries are actively making hormones and ripening eggs from when the period first starts in adolescence until menopause. 

As an egg is ripening in the ovary, several small cysts form that grow to about 2.5 centimeters long, or about an inch. When the woman ovulates and the egg is released from the ovary, the cyst drains and disappears. This type of follicular cyst is completely normal and will come and go.
Cysts that are larger than 3 centimeters are more likely to be functional cysts. These are cysts that start out as follicular cysts but then get bigger for some reason, sometimes filling with blood or extra fluid.  These can grow to 4 centimeters or larger, but usually resolve and go away on their own in a few months. If your doctor thinks a cyst may be this type, they may recommend repeating an ultrasound in a few months to see if it has gone away. Most of the time surgery is not needed in this situation.
Sometimes a cyst turns out to be a benign growth on the ovary. Types of benign growths include dermoid cysts, endometriomas and cystadenomas. This type of cyst does not go away on its own and often will grow over time.  They may need to be removed surgically, usually laparoscopically. Much of the time the cyst is removed, and the ovary saved.
Rarely, an ovarian cyst turns out to be cancer.  Often a doctor can tell from an ultrasound whether a cyst is cancerous, or a blood test will show an increased chance of cancer. 

Most women who get cancer of the ovary are over 40, but all suspicious cysts should be checked out, no matter the patient's age. The good news is that most ovarian cysts will go away on their own. 

Find a doctor

If you have questions about ovarian cysts, contact the Gynecology department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether you are seeking gynecological advice, need help navigating your way through the menopause stage of life or researching a recent breast cancer diagnosis, the Swedish Women's Health Team is committed to helping women find the information they need to live happy and healthy lives.

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