High cholesterol can increase the risk of several heart-related health conditions. Regular screening and healthy lifestyle habits can help people maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is essential for the body to function. However, having high cholesterol can increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease.

High cholesterol does not cause symptoms, so a person will need to undergo screening to find out their cholesterol levels.

People with high cholesterol can take steps to lower it, such as cutting down on saturated fats and exercising.

This article reviews what high cholesterol is, how doctors check for it, risk factors, prevention tips, and more.

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Cholesterol is a waxy substance in the blood. The body needs it for several functions, including:

  • building cells and tissues
  • helping with hormone production
  • aiding bile production in the liver

Cholesterol comes from two sources: the liver and the diet. The liver produces all the cholesterol the body needs to perform essential functions.

A person can also consume cholesterol in food, which doctors call dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol is in animal foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, but not plant-based foods.

Types of cholesterol

There are two main types of cholesterol:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: People refer to this as “bad” cholesterol because having too much of it can lead to heart disease and other health issues.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: People call this “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the blood and carry it back to the liver, which removes it from the body.

Learn more about the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol here.

While cholesterol is essential, having too much of it may cause health issues. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, cholesterol can build up in the arteries, causing them to narrow. This may lead to heart-related health conditions such as:

When doctors describe a person’s cholesterol as high, they are usually referring to total cholesterol.

Doctors measure cholesterol in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Non-HDL cholesterol is a person’s total cholesterol minus their HDL. It includes LDL and other types of cholesterol, such as very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL).

The following tables show healthy levels of cholesterol based on a person’s age and sex:

People aged 19 or under

Cholesterol typeHealthy level
total cholesterolless than 170 mg/dL
non-HDLless than 120 mg/dL
LDLless than 100 mg/dL
HDLmore than 45 mg/dL

Males aged 20 or over

Cholesterol typeHealthy level
total cholesterol125–200 mg/dL
non-HDLless than 130 mg/dL
LDLless than 100 mg/dL
HDL40 mg/dL or higher

Females aged 20 or over

Cholesterol typeHealthy level
total cholesterol125–200 mg/dL
non-HDLless than 130 mg/dL
LDLless than 100 mg/dL
HDL50 mg/dL or higher

Learn more about cholesterol levels here.

High cholesterol levels do not cause symptoms. Therefore, a person will not know whether they have high cholesterol without a screening.

People of all ages should get their cholesterol checked regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following schedule:

  • Adults without underlying health conditions: every 4–6 years
  • Adults with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes: possibly more frequently, based on a doctor’s recommendations
  • Children: at least once between ages 9 and 11 and again between 17 and 21
  • Children with obesity or diabetes: more frequently, based on a doctor’s recommendations

What happens during screening?

Healthcare professionals call a cholesterol test a “lipid panel” because it measures the amounts of cholesterol and other fats, or lipids, in the blood. The test is usually simple and quick and can happen at a doctor’s office or another healthcare facility.

Some people may need to fast for several hours before the test. A healthcare professional should give them plenty of warning if this is the case.

A healthcare professional will draw a sample of blood from a vein, usually in the arm. They will send the sample to a laboratory for analysis. Typically, the results are available within a few days.

The results include a person’s levels of the following:

High LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels can increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Learn more about cholesterol screening here.

The liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs to function. However, diet, exercise, and other factors can influence the amount of LDL cholesterol the liver makes.

Possible causes of high LDL cholesterol include:

  • unhealthy diet
  • lack of exercise
  • obesity or overweight
  • smoking

Other causes include:

  • genetics
  • underlying medical conditions
  • use of medications that lower HDL cholesterol levels

Several risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing high cholesterol. People may be able to modify some but not others.

Modifiable risk factors may include:

Nonmodifiable risk factors can include:

  • age
  • genetics or family history
  • presence of other medical conditions, such as diabetes, HIV, or chronic kidney disease
  • use of certain medications, such as steroids, chemotherapy, or beta-blockers
  • race — non-Hispanic white people have the highest risk
  • sex — males aged 20–39 have the highest risk

A person can lower their cholesterol levels and prevent them from increasing. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits can help people lower their cholesterol levels gradually. In some cases, doctors may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications.

People can take the following steps to help lower their cholesterol:

Learn more about natural ways to lower cholesterol without medication.

Healthy adults should have a cholesterol test every 4–6 years. Children should have a test once between ages 9 and 11 and again between 17 and 21. People with underlying conditions should have more frequent tests, following a doctor’s recommendations.

A person should consult a doctor if they experience the following symptoms of heart disease:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • pain throughout the body
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness

A person should call 911 or their local emergency number if they have symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.

Stroke symptoms include:

  • face drooping or numb on one side
  • weakness in one arm
  • slurred speech

Below are some common heart attack symptoms and what to do in an emergency.

Is it a heart attack?

Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • pain that may spread to arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweaty or clammy skin
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing or wheezing
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  2. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:

  1. Lock fingers together and place the base of hands in the center of the chest.
  2. Position shoulders over hands and lock elbows.
  3. Press hard and fast, at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute, to a depth of 2 inches.
  4. Continue these movements until the person starts to breathe or move.
  5. If needed, swap over with someone else without pausing compressions.

Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:

  1. An AED provides a shock that may restart the heart.
  2. Follow the instructions on the defibrillator or listen to the guided instructions.
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A person with high cholesterol can lower it by making any necessary lifestyle changes and, in some cases, using medications.

Successful management of cholesterol levels can help lower a person’s overall risk of potentially life threatening conditions such as stroke and heart attack.

Learn about reducing cholesterol and how long it takes.

Cholesterol is essential to the body, but having too much in the blood can increase a person’s risk of heart conditions such as coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Factors such as diet and weight can affect a person’s cholesterol levels. Healthy lifestyle habits can help a person lower their cholesterol levels or prevent high cholesterol.

Adults without underlying health conditions should have a cholesterol test every 4–6 years, while those at higher risk — including those with heart disease or diabetes — may need additional screenings.