What is happening to me when I have high cholesterol?

If your doctor has told you that your cholesterol is high, you probably have some questions: What is cholesterol anyway? How did mine get too high? How dangerous is it really? It may be hard to believe that high cholesterol is a problem at all, much less a potentially serious problem, because you may not have symptoms. Many people who have high cholesterol have it for years with no symptoms. Meanwhile, it can slowly, steadily damage your blood vessels. Eventually this damage may cause symptoms. Whether you have symptoms or not, damage to your blood vessels puts you at risk for peripheral vascular disease, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Here is what some people have said about having high cholesterol.


"My cholesterol level was frightening, very high. Much higher than it is now with the medication that I take each evening. Now it's down to 171 to 179. Of course you have to do exercise, pull away from the table, and stay away from all fast food." Jacques

"What has been a motivation to me is simply just wanting to live. You know, enjoying life and having a family. Those have been the things that have been instrumental inside of me wanting to make certain changes." Darnell

"It's important to keep my cholesterol down because I know I can get a heart attack." Thelma

The good news is that you and your healthcare team can treat your high cholesterol - possibly with diet and exercise alone. This can reduce your risk for heart disease and other cholesterol-related health problems. To take an active role in controlling your cholesterol, first you need to know what cholesterol is and how it gets into your body.


What Happens Normally?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance, similar to fat. Every cell in your body contains some. It is made in your liver and travels through your body in your bloodstream. The cholesterol in your blood is called blood cholesterol.

What it does for your body. Cholesterol is used to make bile acids, which help your body digest fats. It also strengthens cell membranes, insulates nerves, and helps make up some hormones. Cholesterol is essential - you can't live without it.


How you get cholesterol. Your liver produces all the cholesterol you need. On top of that, you probably get more through your diet. Animals' livers make cholesterol, too. This means you take in cholesterol whenever you eat animal products, such as meat, dairy foods, egg yolks, poultry, and fish. Plant foods, such as vegetables, grains, and fruits, don't contain cholesterol. Most people can eat animal foods without developing high cholesterol, as long as they don't eat too much.

What Happens With High Cholesterol?

When cholesterol levels are too high, it can build up in your blood vessels in the form of plaque. Plaque buildup can lead to peripheral vascular disease, heart disease, and stroke.


Is My High Cholesterol My Fault?

Your cholesterol level is not completely in your control, but you do have a role. Eating too much food that contains cholesterol may raise your blood cholesterol above a healthy level. Eating foods that contain too much saturated fat can raise your cholesterol level, as well. So can being overweight or inactive. Your age and gender may play a role. Certain other factors, such as genes you inherited from your parents or medicines you take, may put you at risk for high cholesterol, too.


How Common Is High Cholesterol?

More than half of American adults and 1/3 of children age 18 or younger have cholesterol that is high or borderline-high.