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Understanding Your Cholesterol Numbers

Cholesterol is a type of fat (lipid) that’s carried in the blood. Your body makes cholesterol in the liver. You also get it from some foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to build healthy cells. But too much cholesterol can cause it to build up in blood vessels. This turns into plaque. 

The higher your cholesterol, the higher your risk for heart attack, heart disease, or stroke. That’s why you need to know your cholesterol level. If it’s high, you can take steps to bring it down.

Cross section of artery showing blood flow.
Blood flows easily when arteries are clear.
Cross section of artery showing plaque buildup and restricted blood flow.
Less blood flows when cholesterol builds up in artery walls.

Getting a cholesterol test

Your cholesterol is checked with a simple blood test. The results tell you how much cholesterol you have in your blood. You may need to not eat before getting this test. This is called a fasting blood test.

Get a test as often as your healthcare provider advises. Start tests after age 20. Get a test earlier if you have a higher risk for high cholesterol or heart disease. If you have diabetes or high cholesterol, you may need a test as often as every 3 months.

Your total cholesterol number

A blood test will give you a number for the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. The higher this number, the more likely it is that cholesterol will build up in your blood vessels. Even if your cholesterol is just a bit too high, you're at risk for health problems.

My total cholesterol is: ________________

Your lipid numbers

Total cholesterol is just 1 part of the picture. Cholesterol is made up of different kinds of fats (lipids). If your total cholesterol is high, knowing your lipid profile is important.

  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein). This is known as good cholesterol. This protein shell collects excess cholesterol that LDL has left behind on blood vessel walls. That's why high levels of HDL can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

    My HDL cholesterol is:  ________________

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein). This is known as bad cholesterol. It mainly carries cholesterol to body cells. Excess LDL will build up on artery walls. This raises your risk for heart disease and stroke.

    My LDL cholesterol is:  ________________

  • Triglyceride. Your body uses this form of fat to store energy. Like LDL cholesterol, this fat can cause plaque to build up in the blood vessels. Triglyceride levels should be under 150. If your triglyceride level is above 200 mg/dL your provider may want to look at another cholesterol type called apolipoprotein B (apoB).

    My triglyceride is:  ________________

What your numbers mean for you

High cholesterol is only 1 of the big risk factors for heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. Talk with your provider to understand what your cholesterol numbers mean for you. Learn what your risk factors are. Your healthcare provider can help. They can order more screening tests. They can talk with you about things that may raise your risks for heart disease and stroke. These include family history, age, gender, ethnicity, and current health. 

Lowering your cholesterol numbers 

Your healthcare provider can help you get started on a plan to control your cholesterol. They may have goals for treating your cholesterol. You may need to use different kinds of medicines. These work on the different types of cholesterol. Ask about your treatment options and goals. Make sure you understand why these goals are important. They are based on your own risks. Stick with your treatment plan to reach the goals you set.

Steps to lower your cholesterol will include lifestyle changes such as:

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Getting enough physical activity

  • Quitting smoking

  • Taking medicines called statins to control your cholesterol

  • Having regular cholesterol tests

As you work to lower your cholesterol, your numbers will change slowly. But they will change. Be patient and stay on track.

Online Medical Reviewer: Callie Tayrien RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2022
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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