High cholesterol levels often cause no symptoms, and undergoing a blood screening test is typically the only way to check for the condition. This test measures total cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Cholesterol is an essential substance that the body uses for digestion, hormone production, and vitamin D generation. However, at high levels, it can be a risk factor for heart attack and other heart-related conditions.

Undergoing routine blood tests can help a person determine whether their cholesterol levels are within a healthy range. If a person would benefit from lowering their cholesterol levels, a doctor might suggest making lifestyle changes or taking medications.

Keep reading to learn about what causes high cholesterol and how doctors diagnose and treat it.

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High cholesterol levels do not usually cause any symptoms. However, in cases of extremely high cholesterol, a person may see fatty bumps on their skin or grayish-white circles in their eyes.

These symptoms mostly occur in people with a family history of high cholesterol.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

A lipid panel is a blood test that a doctor administers to measure a person’s cholesterol levels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults should undergo testing every 4–6 years. Among younger people, children aged 9–11 years and adolescents aged 17–21 years should get a cholesterol check.

However, people should get more frequent tests if they have heart disease, diabetes, or a family history of high cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the liver produces. Lipoproteins carry cholesterol through the body. The body uses cholesterol for various functions, including food digestion, hormone production, and vitamin D generation.

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol.

If cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis. This occurs when plaques form on artery walls, and it may narrow them and cause the blood flow to become restricted.

Although cholesterol is essential for good health, high levels of LDL cholesterol can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.

High cholesterol levels are often due to certain lifestyle habits, which include smoking, getting insufficient exercise, and consuming a nonnutritious diet.

Some other factors that may contribute to high cholesterol levels include:

  • genes that a parent passed down
  • some medical conditions, such as chronic kidney disease and diabetes
  • certain medications, such as steroids that treat inflammatory conditions

Doctors use a blood test called a lipoprotein panel, or lipid profile, to check cholesterol levels. It measures:

  • LDL cholesterol: This so-called bad cholesterol builds up in the arteries and can cause a heart attack or stroke.
  • HDL cholesterol: This so-called good cholesterol moves LDL cholesterol out of the arteries to the liver.
  • Triglycerides: These are the most common fats in the body. If high levels occur alongside either high LDL levels or low HDL levels, a person may be at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.

If a doctor needs to recommend treatment options for a person with high cholesterol levels, they will take into account the individual’s risk factors and overall health.

Several factors may increase a person’s risk of having high cholesterol. We look at these in more detail below.

Family history

Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic condition that a person can inherit from one or both parents. It can cause high cholesterol levels.

Additionally, family members tend to share lifestyle factors that can contribute to the risk of increased cholesterol levels and heart disease.

Age and sex

In general, as a person gets older, their risk of having unhealthy cholesterol levels increases.

This correlation is particularly prevalent in males. Females usually have lower LDL cholesterol levels than males until they reach menopause. Conversely, males of any age generally have lower HDL levels than females.

Health conditions

In addition to FH, some other health conditions can increase a person’s risk of having unhealthy cholesterol levels. These conditions include obesity and diabetes.

Obesity is linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, lower levels of HDL cholesterol, and higher levels of triglycerides.

Diabetes increases LDL cholesterol levels and decreases HDL cholesterol levels.

Lifestyle habits

The following habits may increase a person’s risk of high cholesterol levels:

  • Smoking: This can harm the blood vessels.
  • Lack of exercise: Too little exercise may increase a person’s body weight, which can affect cholesterol levels.
  • Poor diet: A diet high in saturated fat and trans fat can increase cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol levels can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which is called atherosclerosis. This plaque accumulation restricts blood flow, which can be dangerous.

Atherosclerosis increases a person’s risk of:

Learn about the different types and causes of cardiovascular disease.

Making certain lifestyle changes can usually help a person lower their LDL cholesterol levels or maintain their HDL cholesterol levels. However, a doctor may sometimes also prescribe medications to help control the condition.

Lifestyle changes

A person can take certain steps to help prevent or treat high cholesterol. These include:

  • Eating a nutritious diet: This type of diet includes foods that contain unsaturated fats and are low in saturated and trans fats.
  • Quitting smoking: Quitting smoking can decrease LDL cholesterol levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Limit alcohol intake: Alcohol can raise the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol.
  • Manage stress: Stress can trigger a heart attack or stroke in some people.
  • Exercise: Moderate physical activity — ideally a combination of cardiovascular exercise and resistance training — may improve cholesterol levels.

Medications

If a person has received a diagnosis of high cholesterol, a doctor may prescribe medications such as statins. These drugs can reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack by lowering cholesterol.

Even with medication, it is still important to focus on making dietary and other lifestyle changes to lower cholesterol levels.

Learn more about how to lower cholesterol.

As high cholesterol levels do not usually cause any symptoms, a person may not be aware that they have the condition until they undergo a blood screening. This test measures total cholesterol levels, and it may also check triglyceride levels.

After confirming a diagnosis of high LDL cholesterol levels, a doctor may recommend making lifestyle changes. In some cases, they will also prescribe medications.