Cholesterol is a type of lipid, or fat. It travels through the body as a lipoprotein. The two main types are high density lipoprotein (HDL) and low density lipoprotein (LDL).

Cholesterol has an important role in the body, but an excessive amount can lead to a buildup in the arteries. This buildup, known as plaque, can block arteries and lead to potentially life threatening conditions such as heart disease.

This article explains whether cholesterol is a lipid and what roles it plays in the body. It also discusses how to measure and manage lipid levels, which can be important in preventing health issues.

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Cholesterol is a member of the lipid chemical family. A lipid is a type of fat.

A 2021 article clarifies that cholesterol and triglycerides are lipids that are not soluble in water. First, they must bind to protein molecules to easily cross cell membranes, making the combination a lipoprotein.

Although too much cholesterol can cause health problems, the body needs some cholesterol to remain healthy. The production of cholesterol takes place in the liver. People also get cholesterol from eating the following foods:

  • eggs
  • shellfish
  • dairy products
  • meat

According to a 2019 article, the main function of cholesterol is to help maintain the structure of cell membranes.

Additionally, cholesterol helps the body produce:

Triglycerides are a type of lipid in the body. The American Heart Association (AHA) notes that they are the main type of fat in the human body. The body uses triglycerides to store excess energy from the diet.

There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL cholesterol, which people may refer to as “bad” cholesterol, contributes to the fatty buildup in the arteries that can eventually lead to a blockage. Too much LDL cholesterol can increase a person’s risk of developing several conditions, including heart attack, peripheral artery disease, and stroke.

HDL, or “good” cholesterol, can help lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It transports LDL cholesterol back to the liver, where this organ breaks it down and removes it from the body.

A person may not experience any symptoms if they have high cholesterol levels. However, a doctor can perform a blood test, called a lipid profile, to check these levels.

Typically, a person needs to fast for 8–12 hours for the test to be effective.

The test measures several different aspects of cholesterol, including:

Optimal levels in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)
Total cholesterolapproximately 150 mg/dl
LDL cholesterolless than 100 mg/dl
HDL cholesterolmore than, or equal to, 40 mg/dl for males and 50 mg/dl for females
Triglyceridesless than 150 mg/dl

Most adults should undergo this test every 4–6 years.

Doctors may recommend more frequent testing for some groups of people. These include people with heart disease, a family history of heart disease, or high cholesterol.

Children and adolescents should also undergo a lipid profile once aged 9–11 years and a second time aged 17–21 years.

The treatment for high cholesterol often involves a combination of medications and lifestyle changes.

Different types of cholesterol-lowering medications exist. A doctor may recommend one or a combination of several medications to help lower cholesterol numbers.

Some common types include:

  • statins, which slow the production of cholesterol
  • bile acid sequestrants, which reduce the bile acids that create LDL
  • injectable medications, such as PCSK9 inhibitors
  • fibrates, which lower triglyceride levels
  • niacin, or nicotinic acid, which helps lower cholesterol levels

Although niacin is available to purchase as a dietary supplement, a person should never take it without the supervision of a doctor. This is because it can cause severe side effects and, in some cases, liver damage and failure.

In addition to medications, a doctor will likely recommend a person make several lifestyle changes.

Some commonly recommended lifestyle changes that may affect cholesterol levels include:

Cholesterol is a type of lipoprotein that plays an important role in the functioning of the body. However, an excessive amount can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

The only way to confirm cholesterol levels is to undergo a lipid panel, which a person should do at least every 4–6 years.

If a person’s cholesterol levels are elevated, a doctor may prescribe medication. They will also likely recommend lifestyle changes such as exercise and a nutritious, well-balanced diet.