Why it's done

High cholesterol by itself usually has no signs or symptoms. A complete cholesterol test is done to determine whether your cholesterol is high and estimate your risk of developing heart disease.

A complete cholesterol test, referred to as a lipid panel or lipid profile, includes the calculation of four types of fats (lipids) in your blood:

  • Total cholesterol. This is a sum of your blood's cholesterol content.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This is sometimes called the "good" cholesterol because it helps carry away LDL cholesterol, thus keeping arteries open and your blood flowing more freely.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. This is sometimes called the "bad" cholesterol. Too much of it in your blood causes the buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in your arteries (atherosclerosis), which reduces blood flow. These plaques sometimes rupture and can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
  • Triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn't need into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells. High triglyceride levels are associated with several factors, including being overweight, eating too many sweets or drinking too much alcohol, smoking, being sedentary, or having diabetes with elevated blood sugar levels.

Who should get a cholesterol test?

Adults at average risk of developing heart disease should have their cholesterol checked every five years, beginning at age 18.

More frequent testing may be needed if your initial test results were abnormal or if you're at higher risk of heart disease because you:

  • Have a family history of high cholesterol or heart attacks
  • Are overweight
  • Are physically inactive
  • Have diabetes
  • Eat a high-fat diet
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Are a man older than 45 or a woman older than 55

People with a history of heart attacks or stroke require regular cholesterol testing to monitor the effectiveness of their treatments.

Children and cholesterol testing

For most children, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends one cholesterol screening test between the ages of 9 and 11, and another cholesterol screening test between the ages of 17 and 21.

Cholesterol testing is usually avoided between the ages of 12 and 16 because the hormones prevalent during puberty often contribute to false-negative results.

If your child has a family history of early-onset heart disease or a personal history of obesity or diabetes, your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent cholesterol testing.