Cholesterol Test

What Is Cholesterol?

Picture of woman taking a cholesterol test.
Picture of woman taking a cholesterol test.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is naturally present in the body and is an important part of the body's function.

The body uses cholesterol to produce many hormones including vitamin D and the bile acids that help to digest fat. The body requires only small amounts of cholesterol to function normally, and excess amounts may be deposited in artery walls throughout the body.

This can lead to:

  • narrowing of the coronary arteries in the heart, causing angina and heart attack;
  • narrowing in the carotid arteries that supply the brain, causing stroke;
  • and narrowing of the femoral arteries supplying the legs, causing peripheral artery disease.

How Do You Test for Cholesterol?

Fasting blood tests can measure cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. This test, also called a lipoprotein profile or lipoprotein analysis, measures:

  • Total cholesterol (the total amount of cholesterol in your blood)
  • HDL, high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol)
  • LDL, low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol)
  • Triglycerides, another fatty substance found in the body.
  • Blood cholesterol measurements can be used to help minimize the risk of stroke, heart attack, and peripheral artery disease. The cholesterol level is one of the many risk factors that can be controlled.

Blood cholesterol measurements can be used to help minimize the risk of stroke, heart attack, and peripheral artery disease. A high blood cholesterol level is one of the many risk factors that can be controlled, in addition to high blood pressure, smoking and being overweight.

Fasting for Cholesterol Tests

You will have to fast for a cholesterol test. Fasting allows proper interpretation of blood lipid levels. You will be instructed to not eat or drink anything (except for water) for 14 hours before the blood is drawn. You should not drink alcohol for 48 hours prior to the test.

How Long Do You Have to Fast Before a Cholesterol Test?

  • You will be instructed to not eat or drink anything (except for water) for 14 hours before the blood is drawn.
  • You should not drink alcohol for 48 hours prior to the test.

Can I Drink Coffee the Morning of the Cholesterol Test?

No. Unfortunately for coffee lovers, drinking coffee (or any liquid) is not allowed prior to a cholesterol test.

Can You Check Cholesterol Without a Blood Test?

During a cholesterol test procedure, a blood sample will have to be taken from a vein in your arm.

To do so, a tourniquet (an elastic band) is tied around your arm just above the elbow. A needle is then inserted into a vein in your arm near the inside of your elbow. Once the needle is positioned, a small amount of blood is withdrawn and collected in a vial or a syringe.

After the blood is collected, the needle is removed from the vein, and the tourniquet is removed from your arm. A small cotton ball is pressed over the puncture site to stop any bleeding. A Band-Aid may be placed to protect clothing should a small amount of blood leak out of the puncture site.

How long does a cholesterol take?

Having blood tests drawn takes only a few minutes.

Does a cholesterol test hurt?

Blood tests cause a minimal amount of discomfort. Some people do have anxiety about having blood drawn and it may be worse than the pain of the procedure.

Can I Eat After a Cholesterol Test?

Routine diet may be resumed after the blood test is done. Your health-care professional may discuss resuming any medication that had been withheld prior to the blood test.

What Do the Cholesterol Test Results Mean?

Interpretation of cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood are based on guidelines from a variety of medical organizations including the American Heart Association.

Total cholesterol
Less than 200 mg/dL: desirable
200-239 mg/dL: borderline high risk
240 and over: high risk
HDL (high density lipoprotein)
Less than 40 mg/dL (men), less than 50 mg/dL (women): increased risk of heart disease
Greater than 60mg/dL: some protection against heart disease
LDL (low density lipoprotein)
Less than 100 mg/dL: optimal
100-129 mg/dL: near optimal/above optimal
130-159 mg/dL: borderline high
160- 189 mg/dL: high
190 mg/dL and above: very high
Less than 150 mg/dL: normal
150-199 mg/dL: borderline to high
200-499mg/dL: high
Above 500 mg/dL: very high

What Are the Risks of a Cholesterol Test?

There is little risk associated with blood tests Bruising at the site where the blood was drawn may occur. This occurs normally any time a vein is damaged.

People who are taking blood thinners such as the following may need to hold extra pressure at the puncture site to allow the bleeding to stop:

Rarely, an infection may occur. This may present with pain, redness, swelling, and streaking up the arm towards the armpit.

Some people may feel lightheaded during or after having a blood sample taken. This is due to a vasovagal reaction, or near faint, in which the heart rate slows and blood vessels dilate (due to stimulation of the vagus nerve). This passes very quickly and is usually treated by lying down and resting for a few minutes. This near faint is normal, and not uncommon.

When to Seek Medical Care for High Cholesterol

Cholesterol control is just one of the many opportunities that exist to minimize the risk of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. Your health care practitioner will be able to discuss the benefits and risks of diet, exercise, and medication in the lifelong control of cholesterol in the body.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

How to Lower Your Cholesterol with Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes can let you take control of your heart health, and managing your cholesterol level is one such important lifestyle change.

  • The American Heart Association suggests that fats should represent no more than 30% of total calories you consume in a day, but 25% or 20% is even better. Most of the fats in the diet should be unsaturated.
  • Regular aerobic exercise helps lower cholesterol levels as well as control high blood pressure, diabetes, and body weight.