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4 things to know about cholesterol tests

Women sitting, getting ready to have their blood drawn.

You could have unhealthy cholesterol levels and feel just fine. But that doesn't mean you'd be just fine. In fact, you could be headed for serious health problems like heart disease, heart attack or stroke.

That's why it's crucial to have your cholesterol tested. Here are four things to know about this important test:

1. Why you need to get tested.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance that's normally present in your bloodstream. There are two types of cholesterol—LDL (the bad kind) and HDL (the good kind). Too much of the bad kind or not enough of the good kind can gradually clog arteries that your heart and brain depend on for blood. That paves the way for poor circulation, heart attacks and strokes.

If you know you have a cholesterol imbalance, you can take action to avoid these consequences. But high cholesterol rarely has symptoms, which is why you need to have yours tested at regular intervals.

2. When to get tested.

According to the American Heart Association, all adults age 20 and up should have their cholesterol tested every four to six years. Some people—such as those who already have or are at high risk for heart disease—may need a cholesterol check more often. Ask your doctor what's right for you.

3. How to prepare for the test.

You can visit your primary care doctor for a cholesterol check. He or she will test your cholesterol by taking a small blood sample—usually from your arm or finger—and send the sample to the hospital lab for analysis.

If you're having a test called a lipid profile or lipid panel, you may need to fast (not eating or drinking anything besides water) for 9 to 12 hours. If you forget to fast, tell the person drawing your blood. Also, ask your doctor if you should temporarily stop taking any medications while you fast.

4. What you'll see in the results.

The lab will return your test results, called a cholesterol score, to your doctor, who can interpret them for you. A typical lipid panel or profile will show the following levels in milligrams per deciliter of blood, or mg/dL:

  • LDL (bad) cholesterol tends to clog arteries. So lower is better.
  • HDL (good) cholesterol helps remove excess LDL. So higher is better.
  • Triglycerides. This blood fat can boost heart risks if present in high amounts.

Your lipid panel will also tell you your total cholesterol score, which is the sum of your LDL, HDL and 20% of your triglycerides.

If your cholesterol levels aren't where they should be, you can improve them by making lifestyle changes and, if needed, taking cholesterol-lowering medicines.

Discover more quick cholesterol tips

Check out our infographic to learn more about good and bad cholesterol—and what you can do to improve your levels.

Reviewed 5/9/2022

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