High cholesterol has no symptoms. A blood test is the only way to detect high cholesterol.
When to see a doctor
Ask your doctor if you should have a cholesterol test. Recommendations for the age of first screening vary. Retesting is usually performed every five years.
If your test results aren't within desirable ranges, your doctor may recommend more frequent measurements. Your doctor may also suggest you have more frequent tests if you have a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease or other risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes or high blood pressure.
Cholesterol is carried through your blood, attached to proteins. This combination of proteins and cholesterol is called a lipoprotein. You may have heard of different types of cholesterol, based on what type of cholesterol the lipoprotein carries. They are:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL, or "bad," cholesterol transports cholesterol particles throughout your body. LDL cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL, or "good," cholesterol picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver.
Factors within your control — such as inactivity, obesity and an unhealthy diet — contribute to high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol. Factors beyond your control may play a role, too. For example, your genetic makeup may keep cells from removing LDL cholesterol from your blood efficiently or cause your liver to produce too much cholesterol.
Factors that may increase your risk of high cholesterol include:
- Poor diet. Eating saturated fat, found in animal products, and trans fats, found in some commercially baked cookies and crackers, can raise your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, will also increase your total cholesterol.
- Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
- Large waist circumference. Your risk increases if you are a man with a waist circumference of at least 40 inches (102 centimeters) or a woman with a waist circumference of at least 35 inches (89 centimeters).
- Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body's HDL, or "good," cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or "bad," cholesterol, which makes it less harmful.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them likely to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking may also lower your level of HDL, or "good," cholesterol.
- Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.
High cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, a dangerous accumulation of cholesterol and other deposits on the walls of your arteries. These deposits (plaques) can reduce blood flow through your arteries, which can cause complications, such as:
- Chest pain. If the arteries that supply your heart with blood (coronary arteries) are affected, you may have chest pain (angina) and other symptoms of coronary artery disease.
- Heart attack. If plaques tear or rupture, a blood clot may form at the plaque-rupture site — blocking the flow of blood or breaking free and plugging an artery downstream. If blood flow to part of your heart stops, you'll have a heart attack.
- Stroke. Similar to a heart attack, if blood flow to part of your brain is blocked by a blood clot, a stroke occurs.
Feb. 09, 2016
- What is cholesterol? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc. Accessed Jan. 13, 2016.
- Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/about.htm. Accessed Jan. 14, 2016.
- About cholesterol. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/About-Cholesterol_UCM_001220_Article.jsp#.VpbEathIiic. Accessed Jan. 13, 2016.
- Goldman L, et al., eds. Disorders of lipid metabolism. In: Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Jan. 13, 2016.
- Why cholesterol matters. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/WhyCholesterolMatters/Why-Cholesterol-Matters_UCM_001212_Article.jsp#.VpfWZNhIiic. Accessed Jan. 14, 2016.
- Vjian S. Screening for lipid disorders. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 14, 2016.
- AskMayoExpert. Lifestyle measures for prevention of coronary artery disease (adult). Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2015.
- Cholesterol. Lab Tests Online. American Association for Clinical Chemistry. https://labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/cholesterol. Accessed Jan. 15, 2015.
- Integrated Guidelines for Cardiovascular Health and Risk Reduction in Children and Adolescents. Bethesda, Md.: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/cvd_ped/index.htm. Accessed Dec. 7, 2015.
- Rosenson RS. Treatment of lipids (including hypercholesterolemia) in secondary prevention. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 15, 2016.
- Drug therapy for cholesterol. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Drug-Therapy-for-Cholesterol_UCM_305632_Article.jsp#.Vpkg59hIiic. Accessed Jan. 15, 2016.
- Praluent (prescribing information). Bridgewater, N.J.: Sanofi-Aventis; Tarrytown, N.Y.: Regeneron Pharmaceuticals; 2015. http://www.regeneron.com/Praluent/Praluent-fpi.pdf. Accessed July 28, 2015.
- Repatha (prescribing information). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Amgen Inc.; 2015. http://www.multivu.com/players/English/7414054-amgen-repatha-fda-approval/links/7414054-repatha-pi-hcp-english.pdf. Accessed Aug. 28, 2015.
- The HPS2-THRIVE Collaborative Group. Effects of extended-release niacin with laropiprant in high-risk patients. New England Journal of Medicine. 2014;371:203.
- Dyslipidemia in children: Management. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 15, 2016.
- Natural medicines in the clinical management of hyperlipidemia. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
- Cholesterol management at a glance. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/cholesterol/at-a-glance. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
- Know your fats. American Heart Association. http://health.gov/paguidelines/factsheetprof.aspx. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
- At-a-glance: A fact sheet for professionals. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://health.gov/paguidelines/factsheetprof.aspx. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
- Lopez-Jimenez F (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Jan. 22, 2016.
- Rong y, et al. Egg consumption and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: Dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. British Medical Journal. 2013;346:e8539.