Overview

A complete cholesterol test — also called a lipid panel or lipid profile — is a blood test that can measure the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.

A cholesterol test can help determine your risk of the buildup of plaques in your arteries that can lead to narrowed or blocked arteries throughout your body (atherosclerosis).

High cholesterol levels usually don't cause any signs or symptoms, so a cholesterol test is an important tool. High cholesterol levels often are a significant risk factor for heart disease.

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.

Risks

There's little risk in getting a cholesterol test. You may have some soreness or tenderness around the site where your blood is drawn. Rarely, the site may become infected.

How you prepare

Generally you're required to fast, consuming no food or liquids other than water, for nine to 12 hours before the test. Some cholesterol tests don't require fasting, so follow the instructions provided by your doctor.

What you can expect

During the procedure

A cholesterol test is a blood test, usually done in the morning since you'll need to fast for the most accurate results. Blood is drawn from a vein, usually from your arm. Before the needle is inserted, the puncture site is cleaned with antiseptic and an elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. This causes the veins in your arm to fill with blood.

After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood is collected into a vial or syringe. The band is then removed to restore circulation, and blood continues to flow into the vial. Once enough blood is collected, the needle is removed and the puncture site is covered with a bandage.

The entire procedure will likely last a couple of minutes. It's relatively painless.

After the procedure

There are no special precautions you need to take after your cholesterol test. You should be able to drive yourself home and do all your normal activities. You may want to bring a snack to eat after your cholesterol test is done, if you've been fasting.

Results

In the United States, cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. In Canada and many European countries, cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles per liter (mmol/L). To interpret your test results, use these general guidelines.

Total cholesterol
(U.S. and some other countries)
Total cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe)
 
Below 200 mg/dL Below 5.2 mmol/L Desirable
200-239 mg/dL 5.2-6.2 mmol/L Borderline high
240 mg/dL and above Above 6.2 mmol/L High
LDL cholesterol
(U.S. and some other countries)
LDL cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe)
 
Below 70 mg/dL Below 1.8 mmol/L Best for people who have heart disease or diabetes.
Below 100 mg/dL Below 2.6 mmol/L Optimal for people at risk of heart disease.
100-129 mg/dL 2.6-3.3 mmol/L Near optimal if there is no heart disease. High if there is heart disease.
130-159 mg/dL 3.4-4.1 mmol/L Borderline high if there is no heart disease. High if there is heart disease.
160-189 mg/dL 4.1-4.9 mmol/L High if there is no heart disease. Very high if there is heart disease.
190 mg/dL and above Above 4.9 mmol/L Very high.
HDL cholesterol
(U.S. and some other countries)
HDL cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe)
 
Below 40 mg/dL Below 1 mmol/L Poor
40-59 mg/dL 1-1.5 mmol/L Better
60 mg/dL and above Above 1.5 mmol/L Best
Triglycerides
(U.S. and some other countries)
Triglycerides*
(Canada and most of Europe)
 
*Canadian and European guidelines differ slightly from U.S. guidelines. These conversions are based on U.S. guidelines.
Below 150 mg/dL Below 1.7 mmol/L Desirable
150-199 mg/dL 1.7-2.2 mmol/L Borderline high
200-499 mg/dL 2.3-5.6 mmol/L High
500 mg/dL and above Above 5.6 mmol/L Very high

If your results show that your cholesterol level is high, don't get discouraged. You may be able to lower your cholesterol with lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, exercising and eating a healthy diet. If lifestyle changes aren't enough, cholesterol-lowering medications also may help. Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to lower your cholesterol.