The Basics: Overview
It's important to get your cholesterol checked regularly. Too much cholesterol in your blood can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
The good news is that it’s easy to get your cholesterol checked. If your cholesterol is high, you can take steps to lower it – like eating healthy, getting more physical activity, and taking medicine if your doctor recommends it.
How often do I need to get my cholesterol checked?
The general recommendation is to get your cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years. Some people may need to get their cholesterol checked more or less often depending on their risk of heart disease.
For example, high cholesterol can run in families. If someone in your family has high cholesterol or takes medicine to control cholesterol, you might need to get tested more often. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy material that’s found naturally in your blood. Your body makes cholesterol and uses it to do important things, like making hormones and digesting fatty foods.
If you have too much cholesterol in your body, it can build up inside your blood vessels and make it hard for blood to flow through them. Over time, this can lead to heart disease.
The Basics: Cholesterol Test
How can I tell if I have high cholesterol?
Most people who have high cholesterol don't have any signs or symptoms. That's why it's so important to get your cholesterol checked.
How can I get my cholesterol checked?
Your doctor will check your cholesterol levels with a blood test called a lipid profile. For this test, a nurse will take a small sample of blood from your finger or arm.
There are other blood tests that can check cholesterol, but a lipid profile gives the most information.
The Basics: Types of Cholesterol
What do the test results mean?
If you get a lipid profile test, the results will show 4 numbers. A lipid profile measures:
- Total cholesterol
- LDL (bad) cholesterol
- HDL (good) cholesterol
Total cholesterol is a measure of all the cholesterol in your blood. It's based on the LDL, HDL, and triglycerides numbers.
LDL cholesterol is the “bad” type of cholesterol that can block your arteries – so a lower level is better for you.
HDL cholesterol is the “good” type of cholesterol that helps clear LDL cholesterol out of your arteries – so a higher level is better for you. Having a low HDL cholesterol level can increase your risk for heart disease.
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
The Basics: Am I at Risk?
What can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels?
LDL cholesterol levels tend to increase as people get older. Other causes of high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels include:
- Family history of high LDL cholesterol
- High blood pressure or type 2 diabetes
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Eating too much saturated fat and trans fat – and not enough fruits and vegetables
- Taking certain medicines, like medicines to lower blood pressure
Causes of low HDL (good) cholesterol levels include:
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fat (like olive oil)
What if my cholesterol levels aren't healthy?
As your LDL cholesterol gets higher, so does your risk of heart disease. Take these steps to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Eat heart-healthy foods.
- Get active.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- If you smoke, quit.
- If you have type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, take steps to manage it.
- Ask your doctor about taking medicine to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Take Action: Get Tested
Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your cholesterol is high or you're at risk for heart disease, take steps to control your cholesterol levels.
Make an appointment to get your cholesterol checked.
Call your doctor’s office or health center to schedule the test. Be sure to ask for a complete lipid profile – and find out what instructions you’ll need to follow before the test. For example, you may need to fast (not eat or drink anything except water) for 8 to 12 hours before the test.
You may also want to print these questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol [PDF - 121 KB] and take them to your appointment.
What about cost?
Cholesterol testing is covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your cholesterol checked at no cost to you. For more information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
Even if you don't have insurance, you can still get your cholesterol checked. To learn more, find a health center near you.
Keep track of your cholesterol levels.
Remember to ask the doctor or nurse for your cholesterol levels each time you get your cholesterol checked. Write the levels down to keep track of your progress.
Take Action: Eat Healthy
Eat heart-healthy foods.
Making healthy choices to your diet can help lower your cholesterol. Try to:
- Cut down on saturated fats, which comes from animal products (like cheese, fatty meats, and dairy desserts) and tropical oils (like palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil). Use healthier oils (like olive, peanut, or canola oil) instead.
- Choose foods with healthy fats, like olives, avocados, nuts, and fish. Stay away from trans fats, which may be in foods like stick margarines, coffee creamers, and some desserts.
- Limit foods that are high in sodium (salt) or added sugars.
- Choose low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt.
- Eat more foods that are high in fiber, like oatmeal, oat bran, beans, and lentils.
- Eat more vegetables and fruits.
You can also:
- Check out these tips for eating healthy.
- Use this shopping list to find heart-healthy foods.
- Get heart-healthy recipes and meal plans to keep your cholesterol levels under control.
Take Action: Healthy Habits
Getting active can help you lose weight, lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as:
- Walking briskly
Or aim for 1 hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous activity, such as:
- Jogging or running
- Swimming laps
- Jumping rope
To help you get more active:
- Check out our guide to physical activity.
- Use this tool to build a personalized weekly activity plan.
Quitting smoking can help lower your cholesterol. If you smoke, make a plan to quit today. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your quit plan.
Content last updated January 30, 2020
This information on cholesterol was adapted from materials from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Angela M. Thompson-Paul, PhD, MSPH
LCDR, US Public Health Service
Division of Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention