a condition in which women develop male-pattern hair growth and other masculine
physical traits. Women with virilization often have an imbalance in sex
hormones, such as estrogen and male sex hormones, or androgens, like testosterone.
An overproduction of androgens can cause virilization. Androgens
are primarily produced by the adrenal glands, which are present in both females
and males, and the testicles. To a lesser extent, they’re produced in ovaries. The
testicles are the primary source of testosterone, but the androgens produced by
the adrenal glands are just as important for secondary male sexual
The use of anabolic steroids can also cause virilization.
These are synthetic substances that act like the male hormone testosterone.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Virilization
The symptoms of virilization include:
- excessive facial hair, usually on the cheeks,
chin, and upper lip
- deepening of the voice
- an increased sex drive
- smaller-than-normal breasts
- an enlarged clitoris
- irregular menstrual cycles
- male-pattern baldness
Acne also tends to appear on the:
What Causes Virilization?
Any medical condition that causes an imbalance in sex
hormone levels can result in virilization. These conditions tend to cause an
overproduction of hormones in your adrenal glands. Sometimes, an adenoma, which is a type of cancerous
tumor, causes virilization. A dysfunction in your hormone production pathway or
in increased adrenal gland size, which is called hyperplasia, can also cause
Other causes of virilization include:
- the use of male hormone supplements
- the use of steroids to increase muscle mass
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is a
condition in which women of childbearing age have multiple cysts in their
Cases of virilization caused by PCOS are usually mild.
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes PCOS. However, they believe that high
insulin levels, low-grade inflammation, and genetics may play a role. Women
with PCOS often have masculine physical characteristics, including male-pattern
baldness and facial hair.
Tell your doctor about all of the symptoms or physical
changes you’ve experienced. Mention any medications you’re currently taking,
including birth control. Learning and sharing your family’s medical history can
also help your doctor determine the cause of your virilization.
If your doctor suspects that you may have characteristics of
virilization, they’ll take a blood sample. Your blood sample will be tested for
testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones. An increased level of
androgens is usually a sign of this condition.
If you have elevated levels of androgens in your blood, your
doctor may perform a test called the dexamethasone suppression test. This test will help them determine
the cause of the excess androgens. If your doctor suspects you have a cancerous
adenoma, they’ll perform an imaging test, such as a CT scan. This will allow them
to view structures within your body in detail. Your doctor can learn if abnormal
growths are present using the imaging scans.
How Is Virilization Treated?
If you have an adenoma in your adrenal gland, your doctor
will likely suggest removing it surgically. If the tumor is located in an area
that’s dangerous or hard to reach, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy or
radiation treatments. These therapies help shrink the tumor before it’s
If a tumor isn’t to blame, your doctor may prescribe birth
control pills. These can help regulate your hormone levels. They may also prescribe
medications that block your androgen receptors.
Virilization can cause women to develop masculine traits
such as male-pattern baldness because of an imbalance in sex hormones. This can
be a result of using male hormone supplements or steroids or having a condition
such as PCOS or a cancerous tumor. Treatment options are available and depend
on the cause. Talk to your doctor about your options.