Cholesterol Test Explained: Purpose, Procedure Results & More

What Is Cholesterol?

You’ve probably heard of cholesterol, but you might not know what it is. Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat or lipid that circulates in your blood throughout your body. Because lipids do not dissolve in water, they do not separate in blood. Cholesterol gets produced by the body, but you can also obtain it from food. Cholesterol can only get found in animal-based foods. Meat, poultry, and dairy products, for example, all contain dietary cholesterol.

Saturated and trans fats are abundant in these foods. These fats cause your liver to produce more cholesterol than it would normally. For some people, this increased production means they go from having a normal cholesterol level to having an unhealthy one. Saturated fat in some tropical oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil, can raise bad cholesterol. You can find these oils in a variety of baked goods.

What Are The Types Of Cholesterol?

Lipoproteins are two types of proteins that transport cholesterol to and from cells. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is one of them. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is the other. A test determines how much of each type of cholesterol is present in your blood.

1. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
LDL cholesterol is known as the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to fatty buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis). It causes artery narrowing and raises the risk of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease (PAD).

2. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
Because a healthy level of HDL cholesterol may protect against heart attack and stroke, it gets referred to as the “good” cholesterol.

LDL (bad) cholesterol is carried away from the arteries by HDL and back to the liver, where it gets broken down and excreted from the body. However, HDL cholesterol does not replace LDL cholesterol completely. Only one-third to one-fourth of blood cholesterol gets carried by HDL.

3. Triglycerides
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat you will find in your body. They save extra energy from your diet. A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol gets linked to fatty buildups within the artery walls. Thus, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Why Is Cholesterol Important To Our Bodies?

Every cell in the body requires cholesterol, which aids in the formation of cell membrane layers. These layers protect the cell’s contents by acting as gatekeepers. They monitor what can enter and leave the cell. Cholesterol gets produced by the liver and gets used by the liver to produce bile, which aids in digestion.

Cholesterol helps produce certain hormones and vitamin D. Your liver produces enough cholesterol to meet your body’s requirements for these vital functions. Lipoproteins, which are small ‘couriers’ in the blood, transport it around. A small amount of blood cholesterol is required because the body uses it to:

  • Build the structure of cell membranes.
  • Produce hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and adrenal hormones.
  • Help your metabolism work efficiently. For example, your body requires cholesterol to produce vitamin D.
  • Produce bile acids, which aid in the digestion of fat and the absorption of essential nutrients.

What Is A Cholesterol Test?

A complete cholesterol test, also known as a lipid panel or lipid profile, is a blood test that can detect the presence of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. A cholesterol test can help determine your risk of fatty deposit buildup (plaque formation) in your arteries, which can lead to narrowed or blocked arteries throughout your body (atherosclerosis). A cholesterol test is a valuable tool. High cholesterol levels are frequently a significant risk factor for coronary artery disease.

Your doctor may refer you for cholesterol tests as part of a routine check-up or if they suspect you are at risk of developing heart disease. But do you understand what the cholesterol test results mean? You’ll learn how to interpret the numbers and more later in the article.

Cholesterol Test: What Is It Used For?

Cholesterol testing is frequently gets used in conjunction with a cardiac risk assessment. Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause artery and blood vessel damage. It may also increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.

You can measure total cholesterol as part of a cholesterol screening, which looks for signs of cardiovascular risk in people who don’t have any symptoms. Total cholesterol is typically one component of a lipid panel, which also determines levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.

Future tests may only include total and HDL cholesterol, depending on the results of the initial screening. Total cholesterol and lipid panel tests may also get used:

  • to monitor people who are at high risk of cardiovascular disease
  • to diagnose certain medical conditions
  • to assess how well treatment is working to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease

What Is The Cholesterol Test Procedure?

The cholesterol test procedure remains quite simple and takes only about 5-10 minutes to complete. The process involves the following steps:

  • A small needle will get used by a health care professional to draw blood from a vein in your arm.
  • Following the insertion of the needle, a small amount of blood will get collected in a test tube or vial.
  • When the needle goes in or out, you may feel a slight sting. It usually takes under five minutes.

Cholesterol tests are typically performed in the morning because you may get asked to fast for several hours before the test.

You may also be able to test for cholesterol at home using an at-home kit. While the instructions may differ depending on the brand, your kit will include some device to prick your finger. The device will collect a drop of blood for testing. Make sure to adhere to the kit instructions carefully. Also, notify your doctor if your at-home test results show that your cholesterol level is higher than 200 mg/dl.


Preparation For A Cholesterol Test

Generally, you must fast for nine to twelve hours before the test, consuming no food or liquids other than water. Some cholesterol tests do not necessitate fasting, so follow your doctor’s advice. Depending on the results, you might get asked to return for a more comprehensive lipid profile.

1. Before the test
If your doctor advises you to have a non-fasting cholesterol test, the lab will only look at your total cholesterol (and sometimes your HDL) levels. You need to show up at the lab and have some blood drawn for that test.

If your doctor recommends a fasting cholesterol test (also known as a lipid profile), the lab will examine your LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and total cholesterol levels. You must fast for nine to twelve hours before the blood test. A doctor may request that you first perform a non-fasting cholesterol test.

2. During the test
A cholesterol test is a blood test gets usually performed in the morning if you have fasted overnight. Blood gets drawn from your vein, typically in the arm. The puncture site is cleaned with antiseptic before the needle gets inserted, and an elastic band gets wrapped around your upper arm. As a result, the veins in your arm fill with blood.

Following the insertion of the needle, a small amount of blood gets collected in a vial or syringe. After that, the nurse removes the band to allow blood to flow back into the vial. Once enough blood gets collected, the needle gets removed, and the puncture site gets bandaged. The procedure will most likely take a few minutes. It’s not too painful.

3. After the test
There are no precautions you should take following your cholesterol test. You should be able to drive yourself home and perform all of your usual activities. If you’ve been fasting, you should bring a snack to eat after your cholesterol test.


How To Read Cholesterol Test Results?

When you have a cholesterol test, your healthcare provider must explain the results to you to avoid unnecessary worry and confusion. Because it is not only your total cholesterol that is important, your results will include various types of cholesterol, which are listed below.

Ask for a breakdown of the other numbers if you receive only your total cholesterol. A healthy total cholesterol (TC) level can coexist with unhealthy total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio. You should at the very least receive your total cholesterol (TC) and HDL numbers, from which you can calculate your cholesterol TC: HDL ratio.

Cholesterol typically gets measured in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL) of blood. The information below explains how the various types of cholesterol measurements are classified.

Total Cholesterol Level Category
Less than 200 mg/dL Desirable
200 – 239 mg/dL Borderline High
240 mg/dL and above High
LDL (Bad) Cholesterol Level LDL Cholesterol Category
Less than 100 mg/dL Optimal
100-129 mg/dL Near Optimal / Above Optimal
130-159 mg/dL Borderline High
160-189 mg/dL High
190 mg/dL and above Very High
HDL (Good) Cholesterol Level HDL Cholesterol Category
60 mg/dL and higher Considered protective against heart disease
40-59 mg/dL The higher, the better
Less than 40 mg/dL A major risk factor for heart disease

Your age, family history, lifestyle, and other risk factors may influence what constitutes a healthy cholesterol range for you. Low LDL cholesterol levels and high HDL cholesterol levels are generally beneficial to heart health. High triglyceride levels may also put you at risk for heart disease.


Who Should Get A Cholesterol Test?

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that a person’s first cholesterol screening needs to take place between the ages of 9 and 11. You can repeat it every five years after that. The NHLBI also recommends that men between the ages of 45 and 65 have a cholesterol screening every 1 to 2 years. Women between the ages of 55 and 65 can have a screening every five years. Cholesterol tests should be performed on people over the age of 65 once a year.

If your initial test results were abnormal, you already have coronary artery disease, you’re taking cholesterol-lowering medications, or you’re at higher risk of coronary artery disease, you may need more frequent testing.

How Much Does The Cholesterol Test Cost?

A total cholesterol test does not have a set price. The cost is determined by where you take the test and any coverage provided by your insurance.

The cost of testing can include the office visit, the technician’s fee for drawing your blood, and the actual laboratory analysis. If your doctor recommends a cholesterol test, the costs usually get covered by insurance, but you may be responsible for copays or a deductible depending on your plan. If you want more specific information about the costs of cholesterol testing, you can obtain it from your doctor or your insurance plan provider.

How Often Should I Have A Cholesterol Test?

Repeat cholesterol testing usually gets recommended for people who have had high cholesterol in the past or who have risk factors for heart disease. The exact testing schedule depends on your situation and will most likely include a full lipid panel or measurement of HDL along with total cholesterol. Follow-up testing usually gets done every five years if you are not at high risk for cardiovascular problems and have had normal cholesterol levels in the past.

In some cases, you may require more specific or specialized tests. For example, your doctor may order a test to measure your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels.

If you have high cholesterol on an at-home or point-of-care test, you should be tested again with a lipid panel or other exams.

What Factors Affect Cholesterol Levels?

Your cholesterol levels depend on several factors, and they can influence their decrease or increase. If you want your cholesterol levels to remain in the normal range, you need to ensure that you follow through on the factors mentioned below and keep them at an optimal level.

  • Diet – Reduce intake of foods that have high saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. It will help lower your blood cholesterol levels.
  • Weight – Maintaining a healthy weight is a must. If you’re overweight or obese, it can increase your triglycerides. So, keep your ideal weight and lower your triglycerides and raise your HDL.
  • Exercise – Staying physically active and exercising at least 30 minutes a day can help lower your cholesterol levels.
  • Age and Sex – Cholesterol levels rise as we age. Women have lower total cholesterol levels before menopause than men of the same age. However, after menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise while HDL levels can fall.
  • Heredity – Your genes play a role in how much cholesterol your body produces. High levels of cholesterol in the blood can run in families.


Next Steps And Treatment For Cholesterol Levels

High cholesterol levels can result in heart disease. While some risk factors for cholesterol, such as age and heredity, are beyond your control, you can take steps to lower your LDL levels and reduce your risk, such as:

  • Stop smoking and limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Maintain a well-balanced diet by avoiding high-fat and high-sodium foods. Consume a wide range of vegetables, fruits, whole-grain products, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein sources.
  • Regular exercise is essential. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, as well as two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises.
  • Obesity is also a common cause of high cholesterol and heart disease. Your doctor may advise you to lose weight by reducing your calorie intake and increasing your physical activity.
  • Taking cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins, can also help. These medications aid in the reduction of LDL cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol Test: Related FAQs

Q1: Is fasting necessary for cholesterol test?
You’re generally required to fast, consuming no food or liquids other than water, for nine to 12 hours before the test. Sometimes a doctor will ask you to do a non-fasting cholesterol test first. However, whether you need to fast or not depends on your body and your doctor’s recommendation.

Q2: How to check cholesterol level without blood test?
Ideally and traditionally, doctors recommend a lab test to gauge the most accurate values of your cholesterol test.

However, you can use a cholesterol home test kit. Prick your finger with a lancet first. Then, place the blood droplet on the test strip. The cholesterol home test strip contains special chemicals that, after a few minutes, change color. You can then match the final color against a color guide included with the kit.

Q3: What is the normal cholesterol level in a blood test?
Adults should have total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). If your reading is 200 to 239 mg/dL, it gets considered borderline high. On the other hand, 240 mg/dL and above gets considered as high. Your LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter.

Q4: How can I check my cholesterol levels at home?
You can use a home test kit to check your cholesterol levels at home. All you need to do is prick your finger with a lancet first. Then, place the blood droplet on the test strip. The cholesterol home test strip contains special chemicals that, after a few minutes, change color. You can then match the final color against a color guide included with the kit.

Q5: What should I avoid before a cholesterol test?
When it comes to fasting, you should listen to your doctor’s advice. When a doctor recommends fasting before a cholesterol test, it usually means abstaining from all food and drink except water for 9–12 hours before the test.

Q6: Where should cholesterol be checked?
You can get tested for high cholesterol at a healthcare facility, clinic, or hospital. If you are above 40 years of age, you can get a cholesterol test done to ensure you have optimal cholesterol levels in your body. If not, you can speak with your doctor about the next steps and how you can lower the levels with treatment.

Q7: Can cholesterol test results be wrong?
Cholesterol test results can be incorrect in some cases. Improper fasting, medications, human error, and several other factors can cause false-negative or false-positive results in your test. Testing both your HDL and LDL levels usually yields more accurate results than just checking your LDL.


When it comes to cholesterol levels, it’s important to remember that you have the power to change them in your favor. High cholesterol is, on the whole, very manageable. Check with your doctor about developing a treatment plan that you can stick with to lower your cholesterol levels. Your doctor may also include changes to your diet, exercise routine, and other daily habits. It could also include cholesterol-lowering drugs. The more proactive you are in changing your lifestyle and taking prescribed medications, the better your results will be.

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