Cholesterol Test

1 What is a Cholesterol Test?

Also known as a lipid panel or lipid profile, a complete cholesterol test is a blood test that is designed to measure the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.

This test can help in finding out your risk of the buildup of plaques in your arteries that can result in narrowed or blocked arteries throughout your body (atherosclerosis).

High levels of cholesterol do not usually result in any signs and symptoms, so a cholesterol test is a vital instrument. High cholesterol levels are often a significant risk factor for heart disease

2 Reasons for Procedure

High cholesterol on its own does not show any signs and symptoms. The reasons for a complete cholesterol test is to determine whether your cholesterol is high and estimate your risk of developing heart disease.

Also known as a lipid panel or lipid profile, this test includes the calculation of four kinds of fat (lipids) in your blood:

  • Total cholesterol: This is the sum of your blood’s cholesterol content.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: In some cases, it is called the "good" cholesterol as it aids in carrying away LDL cholesterol, thus keeping your arteries open and you blood flowing efficiently.
  • Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: Also known as the "bad" cholesterol, too much of it in your blood leads up to the buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in your arteries (atherosclerosis), which decreases blood flow. These plaques sometimes rupture and can result in heart attack or even stroke.
  • Triglycerides: Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. When you consume food, your body your body converts any redundant calories into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells.
    • Being overweight
    • Taking in too much sugary products
    • Drinking too much alcohol
    • Smoking
    • Being sedentary
    • Having diabetes with elevated blood sugar levels

Who should get a cholesterol test?

Adults at an average risk of developing heart disease should have their cholesterol levels checked every five years, beginning at age 18.

More regular testing may be required if your initial test results were abnormal or if you are at a higher risk of heart disease because you:

  • Have a family history of high cholesterol or heart attacks
  • Are overweight
  • Have diabetes
  • Are physically inactive
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Eat a high-fat diet
  • Are a man older than 45 or a woman older than 55

Individuals with a history of attacks or stroke require regular cholesterol testing to monitor the effectiveness of their treatments.

Children and cholesterol testing

For the majority of children, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends one cholesterol screening test between the ages 9 and 11, and another 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 make a contribution to false-negative results.

If your child has a family history of early-onset heart disease or personal history of obesity or diabetes, your doctor may recommend more frequent cholesterol testing.

3 Potential Risks

There is very little risk involved in getting a cholesterol test.

You may have some soreness or tenderness around the site where your blood is drawn. In rare cases, the site might become infected.

4 Preparing for your Procedure

In preparing for the cholesterol tests you are required to fast, taking in no food nor liquids other than water, for 9 to 12 hours prior to the test.

In certain cholesterol tests, fasting is not a necessity, so follow the instructions provided by your doctor.

5 What to Expect

Here’s what you can expect before, during, and after your cholesterol test.

During the procedure

A cholesterol blood test is usually done in the morning since you will need to fast for the most pin-point accurate results.

  • Blood is drawn from a vein, usually from your arm.
  • Before the needle is inserted, the site of the puncture is cleaned with an antiseptic and an elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. This causes the veins in your arm to fill with blood.
  • After the insertion of the needle, a small quantity of blood is collected into a vial or syringe.
  • The band is the removed to restore circulation, and blood continues to flow into the vial.
  • When the adequate amount of 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 and is relatively painless.

After the procedure

There are no special precautions that you need to take following your cholesterol test. You should be able to drive yourself home and carry on your normal daily activities.

It is advisable to bring a snack to eat after your cholesterol test is done if you have been fasting.

6 Procedure Results

Understanding the results of your cholesterol test will be made possible by your doctor.

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 the Europe) 

Interpretation

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 the Europe) 

Interpretation

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) 

Interpretation

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) 

Interpretation

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

*Canadian and European guidelines differ slightly from U.S. guidelines. These conversions are based on U.S. guidelines.

If your results show that your cholesterol level is high, do not be discouraged. You may be able to lower your cholesterol by simply making lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, doing regular exercise and eating healthy.

If lifestyle changes are insufficient, cholesterol-lowering medication can be helpful. Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to lower your cholesterol.

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