Medical Definition of Virilize

Reviewed on 6/3/2021

Virilize: To cause a female to develop male characteristics such as a deepened voice, an increase in body and facial hair, a decrease in breast size, an enlargement of the clitoris, and "male-pattern" baldness. Background

Males produce hormones called androgens that cause them to develop typically male characteristics such as hair on the face and chest, muscular arms and legs, and a voice of low or medium pitch. Females produce hormones called estrogens that cause them to develop typically female characteristics such as a smooth face and chest, less muscular arms and legs, and a voice of higher pitch. Both males and females also produce small amounts of hormones of the opposite sex--that is, males produce some estrogens, and females produce some androgens. Cause

The cause of virilization in most cases is an excess of male hormones in a female. This excess of male hormones is associated with the following: (1) the use of anabolic steroids (which contain androgens) to build strength and muscle mass; (2) congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a group of inherited disorders characterized by an enzyme defect that results in enlarged adrenal glands and increased production of androgens; and (3) tumors of the ovaries, adrenal glands and testes that produce androgens.

However, isolated symptoms of virilization can sometimes occur independently of increases in hormone production.

For example, in a condition known as idiopathic hirsutism, excessive hair growth occurs in women even though hormone levels remain normal. "Idiopathic" means "of unknown origin or cause." "Hirsutism" means "hairiness." Thus, in idiopathic hirsutism, excessive hair growth develops from an unidentified cause.

On the other hand, in a condition of women known as the polycystic ovary syndrome (also called the Stein-Leventhal syndrome), the hormone level of androgens increases, causing excessive hair growth and possibly other signs of virilization. Meanwhile, cysts and tumors may develop in an ovary. This illness may have the following additional symptoms: (1) failure of the ovaries to produce, develop or release eggs (ova); (2) ovary enlargement; (3) failure to menstruate; (4) irregular menstruation; (5) obesity; and (6) infertility. It must be noted that failure to menstruate is normal before puberty, during pregnancy, during early lactation and after menopause. It is probably abnormal at other times and should receive a physician's attention. Derivation

The noun form of "virilize" is "virilization." "Virilize" and "virilization" are not to be confused with "masculinize" and "masculinization" which refer to the development of male characteristics in a male on a normal schedule during or on a precocious schedule in a younger boy.

"Virilize" and "virilization" are derived from the Latin word "virilis" (masculine). Other words derived from "virilis" include "virile" (manly) and "virility" (manliness).



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