An easy and important test
High cholesterol usually has no symptoms. That’s why it’s important to have your doctor check your cholesterol levels.
A simple blood test will shed light on your cholesterol levels and allow you to make informed decisions about your health.
Your doctor will tell you if you should fast before your test. (Fasting means not having food, beverages and medications.) The period of fasting before a cholesterol test is usually nine to 12 hours.
In the test, a small sample of blood will be taken from your arm or finger. If additional blood tests are needed, all the samples are usually taken at once. Any discomfort is minor.
After the blood sample is taken, it’s analyzed in a laboratory, where the levels of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides are measured. (If you don’t fast, only the values for total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol will be usable.) Your test report will show your cholesterol level in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL).
To determine your cardiovascular risk, your doctor will consider your cholesterol test results in context with your age, sex and family history. Other risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure, will be considered as applicable. If your risk remains uncertain, and treatment options are unclear, your healthcare provider may request a coronary artery calcium (CAC) measurement to provide greater insight into your risk and help in decision-making.
How often should cholesterol be checked?
The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years. After that, people should work with their doctor to determine their risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Those with cardiovascular disease, and those at elevated risk, may need their cholesterol and other risk factors assessed more often.
Your doctor will explain what your cholesterol levels mean, and can discuss treatment options if your numbers are not where they should be.
Where should cholesterol be checked?
It’s best to have your primary care doctor do the test. As noted, your cholesterol levels represent just one of many factors affecting your cardiovascular health, and your primary care physician will have a fuller understanding of your personal and family history, as well as any other risk factors that might apply.
If your cholesterol is checked at a public screening, HDL cholesterol and total cholesterol should be measured. However, if HDL cholesterol isn’t measured, knowing your total cholesterol levels still gives you valuable information. Getting your blood cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index and fasting blood sugar measured regularly should be part of your overall personal care plan.
If you obtain cholesterol screening results from a source outside of your doctor’s office, be sure to share those with your primary care physician. Additional data points help to establish your cardiovascular risk. This is particularly important for those with a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke.
The American Heart Association does not recommend mass screenings of blood cholesterol for all children and adolescents.
Additionally, the American Heart Association has not taken a position on cholesterol home testing devices. Several kinds are on the market. Some measure only total cholesterol. Others measure total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. And at least one device measures LDL, HDL and triglycerides (blood fats).
If you think that you might benefit from such a home testing device, talk to your doctor. He or she can counsel you about the most appropriate kind, given your cholesterol numbers.