Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How can I be sure I have high cholesterol?

The Basics About the Cholesterol Test A blood test is the only way to tell whether you have high cholesterol.

  • You need a test because high cholesterol may not cause symptoms for years. But if you have it, whether you know it or not, you may be damaging your arteries.
  • Most healthy adults need the test at least every 5 years. Your doctor can tell you how often you need one.
  • The screening test for cholesterol levels doesn't take much time - it's a simple blood test that checks your total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL, and HDL. But you do need to fast beforehand. That means you can't eat or drink anything except water or coffee or tea with no milk, cream, or sugar for 9 to 12 hours before you have the blood test.

The only way to know whether your cholesterol is too high is to have the level of cholesterol in your blood tested. The National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Institutes of Health recommends that adults older than age 20 have their cholesterol tested at least once every 5 years. Some adults need the test more often. Some children need it as well. To find out when you need a cholesterol test, seeShould I Be Tested for High Cholesterol? and talk with your doctor.

Where Can I Get My Cholesterol Checked?

The basic cholesterol screening test to check your cholesterol levels is a simple blood test. The newest May 2001 guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program recommend that you do have a fasting cholesterol test. That means that you need to stop eating for 12 hours before the test. The fasting test gives you measurements of your total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Experts at the National Institutes of Health recommend that you have your cholesterol tested by your doctor during a medical exam. This way, your doctor can check your overall health and assess all your risks for coronary heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. However, many public health organizations offer blood cholesterol screenings. These are held commonly at supermarkets, community centers, health fairs, and other public places. These programs can be a convenient and inexpensive way to check your cholesterol. But it's important that they use accurate equipment and procedures. However, since you do not fast before these tests, they do not give as much information. They only give values for total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol.

If you have a test in one of the public places listed above, write down your test results and take this with you to your next healthcare appointment. Or make sure that the results are sent to your doctor. Also, you should make sure to get any follow-up tests or treatment you may need. If your total cholesterol was 200 mg/dL or higher or if your HDL was less than 40 mg/dL, you should have a fasting lipid profile test.

Do I Really Need the Test?

High cholesterol causes no symptoms on its own. So many of us take a head-in-the-sand approach to it. We may say that we believe "what I don't know won't hurt me." Nothing could be further from the truth. Results of studies over the past 30 years show the following results.

  • High cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease. This is especially true if you have high LDL levels - the bad cholesterol.
  • The higher your total cholesterol level is, the greater your risk for developing and dying from heart and blood vessel disease.
  • You can lower your risk of heart and blood vessel disease by lowering your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.
  • By preventing heart disease, you may add many years to your life.

Some people avoid having their blood cholesterol tested because they believe some of the myths about cholesterol.