High cholesterol usually has no symptoms. That's why it’s important to have your doctor check your cholesterol levels.
If you get test anxiety, take it easy. A cholesterol test isn’t like a test in school, where you have to know something. And it’s not like a driving test, where you have to do something.
Just give a little blood, then the doctor and lab do all the work. You can’t fail, because no matter what the test results show, you’ll be better off knowing where you stand. When it comes to risk factors like high cholesterol, ignorance isn’t bliss. It can be deadly!
Your test results may show you don’t have a problem. If you do, you can take action to help avoid a much bigger problem in the future. You can’t lose!
How it’s doneYour 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 other blood tests are also needed, all the samples are usually taken at once. Any discomfort is minor.
After the sample is taken, it’s analyzed in a laboratory. Then the levels of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides are measured and reported. (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 how your cholesterol levels affect your risk of heart disease, your doctor will also consider other risk factors, some of which include age, sex, family history, smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure.
How often should cholesterol be checked?The American Heart Association recommends that all adults age 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years. After that, people should work with their healthcare providers to determine their risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
People who have cardiovascular disease or are at higher risk of it may need their cholesterol and other risk factors assessed more often.
Your healthcare provider will explain what your results mean. If needed, he or she will also discuss appropriate treatment options based on your cardiovascular risk and overall health.
Where should cholesterol be checked?It's best to have your primary care doctor do the test. Other risk factors, such as your age, sex, family history, smoking history, diabetes and blood pressure, must be considered when interpreting your results. Your primary care doctor is most likely to have all that information. Once you know your results, you can see where you stand. Your doctor can recommend a treatment and prevention plan, as well as follow-up testing, if you need it.
If your cholesterol is checked at a public screening, HDL cholesterol and total cholesterol should be measured. However, if HDL cholesterol isn’t measured, having your total cholesterol levels will still give valuable information. Getting your blood cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index and fasting blood sugar measured regularly should be part of your overall medical care plan.
Your cholesterol level is just part of your overall cardiovascular risk profile. That means your other risk factors must be considered, too. Be sure to share the screening results with your healthcare professional. This will ensure that your tests can be properly interpreted and an appropriate treatment and prevention plan developed, if you need one. This is particularly important for people with a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke.
The American Heart Association doesn't recommend mass screenings of blood cholesterol for all children and adolescents.
The American Heart Association hasn't 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. One measures LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats). If you might benefit from one, talk to your doctor about which kind might be best for you.
This content was last reviewed April 2017.