Find out how to prepare, who should be tested and what cholesterol blood tests mean in an article written by Mayo Clinic staff.
Definition of a Cholesterol Blood Test
A complete cholesterol blood test — also called a lipid panel or lipid profile — is a group of blood tests that can measure the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. A cholesterol blood test can help determine your risk of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaques in your arteries that can lead to narrowed or blocked arteries throughout your body. If your cholesterol levels are high, you probably won’t have any signs or symptoms, so a cholesterol blood test is an important tool. High cholesterol levels are a significant risk factor for heart disease.
Why a Cholesterol Blood Test is Done
Cholesterol and triglycerides are substances that naturally circulate in your blood. Although these substances are necessary for your body to function normally, too much fat in your blood increases your risk of heart disease, a stroke, or narrowed arteries in your arms or legs (peripheral artery disease).
What’s Measured in a Cholesterol Blood Test?
A complete cholesterol blood test, referred to as a lipid panel or lipid profile, includes the measurement of four types of fats (lipids) in your blood:
- Total cholesterol is the sum of your blood’s cholesterol content.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is called the “good” cholesterol because it helps carry low-density lipoproteins through the arteries– keeping them clear and open for blood to flow freely to and from the heart.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is called the “bad” cholesterol because too much causes buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in your arteries, which reduces blood flow. If these plaques rupture it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. When you eat, your body converts excess calories to triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells. High triglyceride levels typically mean you regularly eat more calories than you burn. High triglyceride levels are also seen in people who are overweight, in those consuming too many sweets or too much alcohol, and in people with diabetes who have elevated blood sugar levels.
Who should get a cholesterol test?
All adults age 20 or older should have a cholesterol test once every five years. Ideally, you should begin having your cholesterol checked in your early twenties. You should have your cholesterol measured when you’re relatively healthy. An acute illness, a heart attack or severe stress can affect cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol blood testing is very important if you:
- Have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease
- Are overweight
- Are physically inactive
- Have diabetes
- Eat a high-fat diet
These factors put you at increased risk of developing high cholesterol and heart disease.
If you have high cholesterol levels, your doctor may want you to get your blood tested more often. Discuss with your doctor how often you should have a cholesterol blood test if your cholesterol levels are abnormal.
Cholesterol is often high during pregnancy, so pregnant women should wait at least six weeks after giving birth to have their cholesterol measured.
Children and Cholesterol Blood Testing
Children as young as age 2 can have high cholesterol, but not all children need to be screened for high cholesterol. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a cholesterol blood test only for children between the ages of 2 and 10 who have a known family history of high cholesterol or premature coronary artery disease. Your child’s doctor may recommend retesting if your child’s first test shows he or she has normal cholesterol levels.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends testing if the child’s family history for high cholesterol is unknown, but the child has risk factors for high cholesterol, such as obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes.
Risks of getting a Cholesterol Blood Test
There’s little risk in getting a cholesterol blood test. You may have some soreness or tenderness around the site where your blood is drawn, or the site may become infected.
How you prepare for your Cholesterol Blood Test
You should fast (no food or liquids other than water) for nine to 12 hours before the test. You can drink water in the time leading up to the blood test, but avoid coffee, tea and other beverages.
Talk to your doctor about any other special requirements. Some medications, such as birth control pills, can increase your cholesterol levels. For this reason, if you take these or other medications, your doctor might want you to stop taking them for a few days before your cholesterol blood test.
What you can expect from your Cholesterol Blood Test
During the procedure
A cholesterol test is a blood test, usually done in the morning since you’ll need to fast for the most accurate results. Blood is drawn from a vein, usually from your arm. Before the needle is inserted, the puncture site is cleaned with antiseptic and an elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. This causes the veins in your arm to fill with blood.
After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood is collected into a vial or syringe. The band is then removed to restore circulation, and blood continues to flow into the vial. Once enough blood is collected, the needle is removed and the puncture site is covered with a pressure wrap.
The entire procedure will likely last a couple of minutes. It’s relatively painless.
After the procedure
There are no special precautions you need to take after your cholesterol blood test. You should be able to drive yourself home and do all your normal activities. You may want to bring a snack to eat after your cholesterol test is done, if you’ve been fasting.
It may take a few days for you to get your results back. Your doctor should explain to you what the results of your test mean. It’s likely your doctor will want to retest you in several weeks or months if your test shows your cholesterol levels are high. Before starting any treatment based only on an abnormal cholesterol test, it’s common to get several tests done over a period of time to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
Cholesterol Blood Test Results
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).
The four main categories — total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides — are what are most commonly measured during a cholesterol blood test. Still, many doctors have begun examining other substances in the blood. Tests of these other substances in the blood are often done on the same sample of blood taken during a cholesterol test and meant to complement, not replace, a standard lipid blood panel or lipid blood profile cholesterol blood test.
If your results show that your cholesterol level is high, don’t get discouraged. You may be able to lower your cholesterol with lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, exercising and eating a healthy diet. If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, cholesterol-lowering medications also may help. Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to lower your cholesterol.
Women and cholesterol test results
The hormone estrogen tends to cause women to have higher levels of HDL, “good,” cholesterol but also higher levels of triglycerides. If you have higher levels of triglycerides than normal, talk to your doctor. Many women who are at risk of heart disease and have high cholesterol or triglyceride levels may benefit from cholesterol-lowering medications.
Try one of these: