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 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, stroke, and 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 have annual cholesterol tests no matter what your age is.
Who Is at Risk for High Cholesterol?
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
What Does a Cholesterol Test Measure?
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 or diabetic or who eat too many sweets or drink too much alcohol can have high triglyceride levels.
How Is a Cholesterol Test Performed?
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 are having a complete lipid profile done, 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. The procedure 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 some soreness or pain at the site where your blood was drawn. There is also a very slight risk of infection at the puncture site.
What Do the Test Results Mean?
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. Ideal results for most adults are:
- LDL: 70-130 mg/dL (the lower the number, the better)
- HDL: more than 40-60 mg/dL (the higher the number, the better)
- Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL (the lower the number, the better)
- Triglycerides: 10-150 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. He or she may also order a thyroid function test to determine if your thyroid is underactive.
If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, you can improve your test results by:
- eating a low-fat diet
- exercising regularly
- avoiding smoking cigarettes
- taking cholesterol-lowering medications