A complete cholesterol test (also called a lipid panel or lipid profile) measures the amount of “good” and “bad” cholesterol and the level of triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy fat that your body needs to function properly. However, too much cholesterol can lead to:
- heart disease
- atherosclerosis (a clogging or hardening of your arteries)
Experts agree that men should have their first cholesterol screening before age 35 and women before age 45. To stay on the safe side, you may even want to begin having your cholesterol tested every five years after age 20.
If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure, or if you are taking medication to control your cholesterol levels, you should check your cholesterol every year no matter your age.
Cholesterol testing is very important if you:
- have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease
- are overweight or obese
- drink alcohol frequently
- lead an inactive lifestyle
- smoke cigarettes
- suffer from diabetes, kidney disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, or an underactive thyroid gland
All of these things can increase your risk for developing high cholesterol.
A complete cholesterol test measures four types of lipids (fats) in your blood.
- Total cholesterol: This is the total amount of cholesterol in your blood.
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: This is referred to as “bad” cholesterol, and too much of it can lead to heart attack, stroke, and atherosclerosis.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol: This is referred to as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from your blood.
- Triglycerides: When you eat, your body converts the calories it doesn’t need into triglycerides, which are stored in your fat cells. People who are overweight, diabetic, eat too many sweets, or drink too much alcohol can have high triglyceride levels.
A blood test is required to test for your cholesterol levels. Often, if you are only testing for HDL and total cholesterol, you may eat beforehand. If you’re having a complete lipid profile, you should not eat or drink anything other than water for nine to 12 hours before the test.
If you take medication that could increase your cholesterol levels, such as birth control pills, your doctor may ask you to stop taking them a few days before the test.
The test is usually done in the morning, as you’ll probably have fasted since the night before. A blood test is an outpatient procedure, usually performed at a diagnostic lab. It takes only a few minutes and is relatively painless.
There are very few risks associated with having your blood drawn for a cholesterol test. You may feel slightly faint or have some soreness or pain at the site where your blood was drawn. There’s also a very slight risk of infection at the puncture site.
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. Ideal results for most adults are:
- LDL: 70 to 130 mg/dL (the lower the number, the better)
- HDL: more than 40 to 60 mg/dL (the higher the number, the better)
- total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL (the lower the number, the better)
- triglycerides: 10 to 150 mg/dL (the lower the number, the better)
If your cholesterol numbers are outside of the normal range, you may be at a higher risk for heart disease, stroke, and atherosclerosis. If your test results are abnormal, your doctor may also order a blood glucose test to check for diabetes. Your doctor might also order a thyroid function test to determine if your thyroid is underactive.
If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, there are steps you can take to improve your results. These include:
- eating a low-fat diet
- exercising regularly
- avoiding smoking cigarettes
- taking cholesterol-lowering medications
Talk with your doctor to figure out the best course of action to bring your cholesterol levels into the normal range.