Your body needs cholesterol, a waxy fat, to build healthy cells.
High cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, means your blood contains too much cholesterol. Specifically, your blood has too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol.
Having high levels of LDL cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease, but it typically causes no symptoms. For this reason, it’s important that you get your cholesterol levels checked by a doctor on a regular basis.
If you or a loved one has high cholesterol, you may be wondering: Can high cholesterol cause other health conditions, like blood clots, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or pulmonary embolism?
Read on to find the answers to these important questions.
In short, yes. High cholesterol — combined with other factors — can contribute to the formation of blood clots in your legs.
High cholesterol can also increase your risk of peripheral artery disease (PAD). This occurs when plaque builds up on the walls of your arteries, narrowing them and limiting blood flow.
People with PAD are at a higher risk for blood clots. The plaque in your arteries may become unstable and break off, prompting your body to form a clot at that site.
If one of these blood clots breaks off and blocks an artery in your heart or brain, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke, respectively.
Other risk factors for blood clots include:
- high blood pressure
- recent surgery
- family history of blood clots
High cholesterol doesn’t directly cause deep vein thrombosis (DVT), but 2019 research suggested that it could increase a person’s risk of DVT.
DVT is a term used to describe blood clots that develop in the deeper veins of your arms, legs, and pelvis.
Cholesterol may contribute to the formation of DVT, but more research is needed to determine exactly how high cholesterol plays a role in DVT. Typically, multiple risk factors are involved.
Other factors that can increase a person’s risk of DVT include:
- immobility, bedrest, or sitting for long periods of time
- injury or trauma
- major surgeries
- blood clotting disorders
- certain medications
- hormonal birth control pills
DVT can occur at any age but is most common in adults ages 60 and over.
If a portion of the DVT dislodges, it can move through your veins and eventually reach the arteries of your lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism (PE), which can be fatal.
High cholesterol can increase your risk of developing a DVT, which increases your risk for a PE. This occurs when a portion of a DVT breaks loose and travels to the lungs.
While cholesterol doesn’t directly cause PE, it may increase your risk. This is because high cholesterol has been associated with an increased risk of DVT, according to a 2004 study.
More research is needed, however, to determine exactly how high cholesterol may play a role in this process.
Other factors that increase a person’s risk of PE include:
- being inactive or immobile for long periods of time
- major surgery
- history of heart failure or stroke
- trauma or injury to a vein
- pregnancy or recent childbirth
- taking hormonal birth control (oral contraceptives) or hormone replacement therapy
- placement of a central venous catheter through the arm or leg
Exactly how long a blood clot can go undetected will depend on its:
When a blood clot occurs in an artery, it’s called an arterial clot. This type of clot requires emergency treatment, as it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Arterial blood clots that occur in the legs can lead to limb ischemia, which also requires emergency treatment. Symptoms include severe pain and coldness in the legs and feet.
Blood clots that form in veins are known as venous clots.
This type of clot can build up slowly over time and may not cause symptoms until it breaks off and becomes lodged in small blood vessels in other parts of the body. DVTs are a type of venous clot.
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Sometimes, a venous blood clot will dissolve on its own over time. Your body will naturally break down and absorb the clot over weeks to months.
Catching a clot early is crucial for avoiding severe complications. If a venous clot does cause symptoms, they may include:
- throbbing or cramping pain that may be described as a severe muscle cramp
- redness and warmth in a leg or arm
- sudden difficulty breathing
- sharp chest pain
- coughing up blood
High cholesterol, combined with other factors, can lead to blood clots in the arteries, known as PAD. High cholesterol may also play a role in the development of DVT and PE, but more research is needed.
The likelihood of blood clots, DVT, and PE will be higher for someone with multiple risk factors for clots, such as:
- major surgeries
- sitting for long periods of time
If you’re worried about blood clots, prevention is the best option. Blood clots can be prevented by:
- remaining active
- maintaining an appropriate weight for you
- quitting smoking, if you smoke
- controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes through diet and exercise
If you’re diagnosed with a blood clot, your doctor may prescribe anticoagulant medications that thin your blood and prevent further clots.
If your cholesterol is too high, your doctor may prescribe medications, such as statins, to lower your cholesterol levels.