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Get Your Cholesterol Checked

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Content last updated on:
February 18, 2014

The Basics

Too much cholesterol (“koh-LEHS-tuh-rahl”) in your blood can cause heart disease or a heart attack. About 1 in 6 American adults has high cholesterol.

You could have high cholesterol and not know it. The good news is that it’s easy to get your cholesterol checked. And if your cholesterol is high, you can take steps to control it.

Who needs to get their cholesterol checked?

  • Men age 35 and older
  • Men under age 35 who have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease
  • Women who have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease

How do I know if I have risk factors for heart disease?
Risk factors for heart disease include:

  • A family history of early heart disease
  • Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity

Talk to your doctor or nurse about your risk factors for heart disease. Ask about getting your cholesterol checked.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance (material) that is naturally found in your body.

Your body needs cholesterol to do important things, like make hormones and digest fatty foods. Your body makes all of the cholesterol it needs. Cholesterol is also in some foods, like egg yolks, fatty meats, and regular cheese.

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. Over time, this can lead to heart disease and heart attack.

How can I get my cholesterol checked?
Ask your doctor or nurse for a blood test called a lipid profile to measure your cholesterol levels.

A small sample of blood will be taken from your finger or arm. Usually you can’t eat or drink anything (except water or sugar-free drinks) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.

How often do I need to get my cholesterol checked?
The general recommendation is to get your cholesterol checked every 5 years. Some people need to get it checked more or less often. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.

What do the numbers mean?
Your lipid profile will measure 4 things:

  • Total cholesterol
  • HDL (good) cholesterol
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Triglycerides (“try-GLIH-suh-rydz”)

Total cholesterol
A total cholesterol level under 200 is good.

HDL cholesterol
This is the good type of cholesterol that lowers your risk for heart disease.

  • An HDL cholesterol level over 60 helps protect against heart disease.
  • An HDL cholesterol level under 40 is a major risk factor for heart disease.

LDL cholesterol
This is the bad type of cholesterol that can block your arteries.

  • If you are at low risk for heart disease, having LDL cholesterol under 160 is good.
  • If you have heart disease, diabetes, or a history of stroke, keep your LDL cholesterol under 100.
  • For most other people, having LDL cholesterol under 130 is good.

Triglycerides
Triglycerides (“try-GLIH-suh-rydz”) are a type of fat in your blood. Keep this number under 150.

Find out more about getting your cholesterol checked.

What could raise my cholesterol?
Many things can lead to too much cholesterol in your body, like:

  • Family history – high cholesterol can run in families.
  • Age – as you get older, your cholesterol goes up.
  • Weight – being overweight or obese.
  • Eating habits – eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
  • Physical activity – not getting enough physical activity.

There are no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol. That’s why it’s so important to get your cholesterol checked.

What if I have high cholesterol?
As your cholesterol gets higher, so does your risk of heart disease. Take these steps to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease:

Ask your doctor if you also need a special diet or medicine to help lower your cholesterol.

To learn more, watch this short presentation on managing cholesterol.

Take Action!

Take Action!

Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your cholesterol is high, you can take steps to control it.

Make an appointment to get your cholesterol checked.
Call your doctor’s office or health center. Schedule a time to get a blood test. Be sure to ask for a complete lipid profile.

Remember not to eat or drink anything (except water or sugar-free drinks) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.

Print these questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol [PDF - 121 KB].

What about cost?
Cholesterol testing is covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your cholesterol checked at no cost to you.

  • Check with your insurance provider to find out about your coverage for cholesterol testing. Ask about the Affordable Care Act.
  • You can still get your cholesterol checked even if you don’t have insurance. To learn more, find a health center near you.

For information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.

Keep track of your cholesterol levels.
Remember to ask your doctor for your cholesterol levels each time they are measured. Write the levels down on this chart [PDF - 110 KB] to keep track of your progress.

Eat healthy.
Change your diet to help lower your cholesterol. This shopping list can help you find heart healthy foods. Try to:

  • Eat less saturated fat, which comes from animal products (like regular cheese, fatty meats, and dairy desserts) and tropical oils (like palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil).
  • Stay away from trans fats, which may be in baked goods (like cookies and cake), snack foods (like microwave popcorn), fried foods, and margarines.
  • Limit foods that are high in cholesterol, including fatty meats and organ meat (like liver and kidney).
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Eat more foods that are high in fiber, like oatmeal, oat bran, beans, and lentils.
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits.

Try these heart healthy recipes and tips to keep your cholesterol levels in check.

Get active.
Exercising regularly can help you lose weight, lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate activity, such as:

  • Walking fast
  • Swimming
  • Aerobics

Get more tips on protecting your heart with physical activity [PDF - 426 KB].

Quit smoking.
Quitting smoking will help lower your cholesterol. If you smoke, make your plan to quit today. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your quit plan.

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