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. A nurse will take a small sample of blood from your finger or arm for this test.
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. Having a high LDL level can increase your risk for heart disease.
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
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Eating too much saturated fat — and not enough fruits and vegetables
- Taking certain medicines, like medicines to lower blood pressure
Causes of low HDL (good) cholesterol levels include:
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fats (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 (called statins) 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 and take them to your appointment.
What about cost?
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover cholesterol testing. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your cholesterol checked at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to find out more.
Medicare may also cover cholesterol testing at no cost. If you have Medicare, learn about Medicare coverage for cholesterol testing.
If you don't have insurance, you may still be able to get free or low-cost cholesterol testing. Find a health center near you and ask about cholesterol testing.
To learn more, check out these resources:
- Free preventive care adults covered by the Affordable Care Act
- How the Affordable Care Act protects you
- Understanding your health insurance and how to use it [PDF - 698 KB]
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 fat, which comes from animal products (like fatty meats and full-fat dairy) and tropical oils (like palm and coconut oil)
- Choose foods with healthy unsaturated fats, like avocados, nuts, and fish — and choose healthier oils (like olive, peanut, or canola oil)
- Limit foods that are high in sodium (salt) or added sugars
- Choose low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Eat more foods that are high in fiber, like oatmeal, oat bran, beans, and lentils
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
You can also:
Take Action: Healthy Habits
Getting active can help you lose weight, lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week — try starting with a brisk walk
- Break up your 150 minutes however you want — try doing aerobic activity for 30 minutes 5 times a week
- Do muscle-strengthening activities 2 days a week — try lifting weights or doing push-ups
Remember, any amount of physical activity is better than none. If you haven’t been active before, start with just 5 minutes and build up from there.
To help you get more active:
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 October 7, 2021
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