OBJECTIVE: NIDDM occurs commonly among women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The prevalence and natural history of its precursor, impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), is less well known. The objective of this study was to characterize the prevalence and incidence of glucose intolerance in a large cohort of women with well-characterized PCOS. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS: A total of 122 women with clinical and hormonal evidence of PCOS were recruited from the Medicine, Endocrinology, Gynecology, and Pediatrics Clinics at the University of Chicago. All women had a standard oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) with measurement of glucose and insulin levels. A subset of 25 women were subsequently restudied with the aim of characterizing the natural history of glucose tolerance in PCOS. RESULTS: Glucose tolerance was abnormal in 55 (45%) of the 122 women: 43 (35%) had IGT and 12 (10%) had NIDDM at the time of initial study. The women with NIDDM differed from those with normal glucose tolerance in that they had a 2.6-fold higher prevalence of first-degree relatives with NIDDM (83 vs. 31%, P < 0.01 by chi 2) and were significantly more obese (BMI 41.0 +/- 2.4 vs. 33.4 +/- 1.1 kg/m2, P < 0.01). For the entire cohort of 122 women, there was a significant correlation between fasting and 2-h glucose concentrations (r = 0.76, P < 0.0001); among the subset with IGT, the fasting glucose concentration was poorly predictive of the 2-h level (r = 0.25, NS). After a mean follow-up of 2.4 +/- 0.3 years (range 0.5-6.3), 25 women had a second OGTT. The glucose concentration at 2 h during the second glucose tolerance test was significantly higher than the 2-h concentration during the first study (161 +/- 9 vs. 139 +/- 6 mg/dl, P < 0.02). CONCLUSIONS: The prevalence of IGT and NIDDM in women with PCOS is substantially higher than expected when compared with age- and weight-matched populations of women without PCOS. The conversion from IGT to NIDDM is accelerated in PCOS. The fasting glucose concentration does not reliably predict the glucose concentration at 2 h after an oral glucose challenge, particularly among those with IGT, the subgroup at highest risk for subsequent development of NIDDM. We conclude that women with PCOS should periodically have an OGTT and must be closely monitored for deterioration in glucose tolerance.