EBSCO Health

Print PageSend to a Friend
Health Library Home>Article

Total Cholesterol

What Is Total Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in blood. It is a big part of all cells.

Total cholesterol is the total amount of it in your blood. The test also measures high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Reason for the Test

Too much cholesterol can cause plaque to buildup in your blood vessels. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The test is done to find out your risk for health problems of the heart or blood vessels.

People 20 years or older should get screened every 5 years. People with high cholesterol or those who are at risk for heart disease may need to be tested more often.

Children under 2 years old do not need to be screened. Children aged 9 to 11 years old and children aged 17 to 21 years old should be screened. Children of other ages only need to be tested if they are at high risk.

You may also be tested if you have a health problem that may raise your risk of high cholesterol or heart disease, such as diabetes, liver or kidney problems, a family member with cholesterol problems, hypothyroidism, or arteriosclerosis. Your doctor will test you more often if you have these risks.

Type of Sample Taken

A blood sample will be taken from a vein in the arm or wrist.

Prior to Collecting the Sample

You may be asked not to eat or drink anything other than water for 9 to 12 hours before the test. Let your doctor know about any medicines you may take. You may need to stop taking some medicines on the day of the test.

During the Sample Collection

You will be asked to sit. An area inside your elbow will be cleaned with a wipe. A large band will be tied around your arm. The needle will be put in a vein. A tube will collect the blood from the needle. The band on your arm will be taken off. After the blood is collected, the needle will be removed. Gauze will be held on the site to help stop bleeding. You may also be given a bandage. This test takes about 5-10 minutes.

You can also buy a home cholesterol test kit. Churches and worksites also offer screenings as part of health fairs. Anyone who has a high test result should be re-tested by his or her doctor.

After Collecting the Sample

After the sample is taken, you may need to sit for 10-15 minutes. If you are lightheaded, you may need to stay longer. When you feel better, you can leave.

In some people, a bit of blood may ooze from the vein below the skin and cause a bruise. You can help prevent bruising by putting pressure over the site. Any bruise will go away in a day or two.

After the sample has been taken, these problems may rarely happen:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Persistent bleeding or discharge
  • Pain

Call your doctor right away if you have any of these problems.

Results

Your doctor will get the test results in 1 to 2 days.

RISK LEVEL RESULT
Normalless than 200 mg/dL (5.2 mmol/L)
Borderline high 200 to 239 mg/dL (5.1-6.1 mmol/L)
High at or equal to 240 mg/dL (6.2 mmol/L)

mg/dl = milligrams per deciliter; mmol/L = millimoles per liter

Having a high risk level is one of many risks for heart disease. The levels of other lipids in your blood will also be checked to find out your risk. A person with a borderline high or high risk level will need to learn how to lower their risk of heart disease. The changes you need to make will be based on your age, gender, health habits, and other problems you may have. It will also depend on whether you have family members who have had heart disease. You can lower your risk by changing the way you eat and by working out more. You may also need medicine.

Cholesterol levels can change from problems like diabetes, pregnancy, or a flare up of arthritis. Your doctor may want to test you for other health problems before choosing your care.

Many factors can affect the reliability of lab tests. A test may suggest an illness that actually does not exist. This is called a false positive. A test may also miss an illness that actually does exist. This is called a false negative.

A doctor will consider the results from many tests and your symptoms before making a diagnosis. It is important to discuss these results with your doctor before coming to any conclusions.

REFERENCES:

Cholesterol. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at:https://www.ebscohost.com/nursing/products/nursing-reference-center. Updated October 12, 2018. Accessed March 18, 2019.

How is high blood cholesterol diagnosed? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc/diagnosis. Accessed March 18, 2019.

Hypercholesterolemia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114250/Hypercholesterolemia. Updated November 28, 2018. Accessed March 18, 2019.

NHLBI integrated guidelines for pediatric cardiovascular risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T900917/NHLBI-integrated-guidelines-for-pediatric-cardiovascular-risk-reduction. Updated February 12, 2013. Accessed March 18, 2019.

What your cholesterol levels mean. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/What-Your-Cholesterol-Levels-Mean_UCM_305562_Article.jsp#.VtbtN02FPIU. Updated April 30, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2019.

Last reviewed March 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardDianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN  Last Updated: 3/14/2019