A cholesterol embolism (CE) is a crystal of cholesterol that has broken away from a plaque deposit inside an artery and become lodged in a smaller artery. Cholesterol emboli can restrict blood flow to the major organs. This may result in serious and potentially life threatening complications.
In this article, we describe what a CE is, including its causes, risk factors, and signs and symptoms. We also outline the common methods for diagnosing, treating, and preventing cholesterol emboli, and we discuss the outlook for people living with this condition. Finally, we offer advice on when to see a doctor.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that plays an
Cholesterol emboli can restrict blood flow to major organs. Depending on the severity of the blockage and the organs affected, this may lead to serious and potentially life threatening conditions.
Cholesterol embolism syndrome is
- the brain
- the eyes
- the skin
- the muscles
- the kidneys
- the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
The plaque that causes CE can contain various types of debris, but cholesterol crystals are generally the
- consuming a diet high in saturated and trans fats
- having a sedentary lifestyle
- experiencing stress and associated hormone changes
- having a genetic predisposition
- having existing health conditions, such as hypothyroidism and nephrotic syndrome
The biggest risk factor for CE is atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Other risk factors include:
- hypertension, or high blood pressure
- hyperlipidemia, or high levels of fats in the blood
- peripheral vascular disease (PVD), which is a circulatory disorder that causes blockages, narrowing, or spasm of blood vessels outside the brain and heart
- kidney failure
- natural aging
- being male
People receiving certain treatments for diseases of the heart or blood vessels also have a
A person may also experience more specific symptoms due to a lack of blood flow to individual organs. Cholesterol emboli most commonly affect the kidneys, skin, and GI tract. According to a
The symptoms a person experiences will depend on the organ affected. Possible symptoms may include:
- Kidney symptoms. In the early stages of kidney disease, a person likely will not experience any symptoms. In the later stages, a person may experience multiple symptoms, including:
- poor appetite
- frequent urination
- blood in the urine
- swelling of the ankles, feet, or hands
- Skin symptoms. These may include the following:
- blue or purple toe color
- skin ulcers
- livedo reticularis, which is a rash with a lacy appearance
- Gastrointestinal symptoms. These may include:
- Central nervous system (CNS) symptoms. These may include:
- spinal cord infarction
- Eye symptoms. These may include:
- retinal plaque
- loss of vision in at least one eye
- sudden blindness
- gastric and colonic mucus
- bone marrow
Other tests that are usually included in the workup include a complete blood count, a basic metabolic panel, and urinalysis.
The presence of a CE usually becomes clear when a person who has been experiencing relevant symptoms experiences a sudden event, such as a stroke. Imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help
There is no specific treatment for CE. The main strategy for improving a person’s outlook is preventing cardiovascular complications.
In some cases, a doctor may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to
- IL-1 antagonists
If a doctor can identify the location of the CE, they may recommend
A person who has received a diagnosis of CE will need to make certain lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of further cardiovascular disease. Preventive measures
- quitting smoking
- limiting or avoiding alcohol
- maintaining a moderate weight
- managing blood sugar levels
- avoiding high blood pressure
- taking aspirin and statins
The outlook for CE is
People can test their cholesterol levels using a home testing kit available from most pharmacies. The test kit will indicate whether a person’s cholesterol levels are within an acceptable range. Anyone who learns that their cholesterol is high should see their doctor for further advice.
A person should also contact their doctor if they experience signs and symptoms of CE. They may wish to ask their doctor the following questions:
- Which medications can I take to help lower my cholesterol, and what are their side effects?
- How can I reduce my cholesterol intake?
- How often should I check my cholesterol levels?
A cholesterol embolism is a crystal of cholesterol that has broken away from an arterial plaque and become lodged within a smaller artery. The CE creates a blockage within the artery that can restrict blood supply to the major organs. This can result in severe and potentially life threatening complications.
A CE can cause generalized symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, and muscle aches. It may also cause symptoms specific to the organ that it affects.
There is no specific treatment for CE. The primary aim is to implement lifestyle changes or take medications that will help prevent cardiovascular complications. People who have already experienced such complications may require medications to manage any secondary conditions.
A person who is concerned about their cholesterol levels or concerned about a possible CE should see their doctor for further advice and testing.