Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that your liver produces. Eating too many foods that contain high amounts of fat raises LDL cholesterol levels in your blood. This is called hypercholesterolemia, also called hypercholesterolemia or hyperlipidemia.
Cholesterol plays an important role in our body
Cholesterol is not necessarily bad for our health. On the contrary, it is vital for the formation of cell membranes, vitamin D and certain hormones. If the LDL cholesterol level is too high or the HDL cholesterol level is too low, fatty deposits build up in your blood vessels. These deposits will make it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. It could cause problems throughout your body, especially in your heart and brain, or it could be fatal.
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
High cholesterol usually causes no symptoms. In most cases, it only causes emergency events. For example, a heart attack or stroke can result from the damage caused by high cholesterol. These events usually don’t happen until high cholesterol causes plaque to build up in your arteries. Plaque can narrow the arteries, so less blood can pass through. The formation of plaque changes the composition of your arterial wall. This could lead to serious complications.
Take a blood test
A blood test is the only way to know if your cholesterol level is too high. This means that the total blood cholesterol level is above 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Ask your doctor for a cholesterol test after age 20. Thereafter, have your cholesterol levels checked every 4 to 6 years. Your doctor may also suggest that you have your cholesterol levels checked more often if you have a family history of high cholesterol. Or if you have the following risk factors: you have high blood pressure, you are overweight or you smoke.
There is a disease passed down through genes that causes high cholesterol levels called familial hypercholesterolemia. People with this condition have cholesterol levels of 300 mg/dL or higher. They may have xanthoma, which may appear as a yellow spot above the skin or a bump under the skin.
Coronary artery (heart) disease
Symptoms of heart disease can be different in men and women. However, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both sexes in Europe. The most common symptoms are:
- angina, chest pain
- extreme tiredness
- shortness of breath
- pain in the neck, jaw, upper abdomen, or back
- numbness or coldness in your extremities
Plaque buildup caused by high cholesterol can put you at serious risk of having the blood supply to an important part of your brain reduced or cut off. This is what happens when a stroke occurs. A stroke is a medical emergency. It is important to act quickly and seek medical treatment if you or someone you know experiences symptoms of a stroke. These symptoms include:
- sudden loss of balance and coordination
- sudden dizziness
- facial asymmetry (eyelid and mouth drooping on one side only)
- inability to move, especially on one side of the body
- vulgar words
- numbness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
- blurred vision, blackened vision, or double vision
- severe and sudden headaches
The arteries that supply blood to the heart can slowly narrow due to plaque buildup. This process, called atherosclerosis, happens slowly over time and has no symptoms. Eventually, a piece of the plaque may come off. When this happens, a blood clot forms around the plaque. It can block blood flow to the heart muscle and deprive it of oxygen and nutrients.
Signs of a heart attack include:
- tightness, feeling of fullness, pain in the chest or arms
- difficulty breathing
- anxiety or sense of impending loss
- nausea, indigestion, or heartburn
- excessive tiredness
Diagnosis of high cholesterol
High cholesterol is very easy to diagnose using a blood test called a lipid panel. Your doctor will take a blood sample and send it to a lab for testing. Your doctor will ask you not to eat or drink anything for at least 12 hours before the test. A lipid panel measures your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Desirable levels are:
- LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol: 60 mg/dL or more
- triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
Your total cholesterol level is generally considered borderline high if it is between 200 and 239 mg/dL. It is considered high if it is greater than 240 mg/dL.
Your LDL cholesterol level is generally considered borderline high if it is between 130 and 159 mg/dL. It is considered high if it is greater than 160 mg/dL.
Your HDL cholesterol is generally considered “poor” if it is below 40 mg/dL.