Cholesterol is often talked about, but few people realise the significant effect it can have on their health. If you’re over 40 and you’ve never had a cholesterol test – is it time you thought about getting it checked?

High cholesterol has no obvious symptoms; a blood test is the only way to know if you have it. In this blog, we ask, what are the tests for measuring cholesterol?

What is high cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in your blood and the cells of your body. It has an important role to play, but too much of it can block your blood vessels. High cholesterol puts you at greater risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • A stroke
  • Atherosclerosis (a clogging or hardening of your arteries).

It’s usually caused by eating fatty foods, not exercising enough, drinking too much alcohol, and smoking. However, there are other known risk factors, for example, high cholesterol can run in the family, and it’s also associated with medical conditions, such as kidney disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, and an underactive thyroid.

There are no obvious symptoms of high cholesterol; it can only be diagnosed by a test.

When should you have a test?

If you’re at risk of heart disease – you’re overweight, smoke, or it runs in the family – then your GP might suggest that you take a cholesterol test. Likewise, if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or a heart condition, then you will benefit from regular testing.

A test for high cholesterol is included in the free NHS Health Check for people aged between 40 and 74 in the UK. The health check is designed to monitor your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure every five years – like an MOT for your body.

If you’ve never been offered a test, but you think you might be at risk of high cholesterol, perhaps a close relative has it or you’re worried about your health, speak to your GP.

How do you test for high cholesterol?

There are two ways of measuring the fat in your blood:

1. Taking blood from your arm
If you have blood taken at your GP or pharmacy, the blood sample will be sent away to a lab for testing, and you should receive your results within a few days.

2. Using a finger prick test
This is the test used by the NHS in the five-year health check. It uses a drop of blood from your finger to check for cholesterol in just a few minutes.

A blood test measures four different things:

  • Total cholesterol – total amount of cholesterol
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – “bad cholesterol”
  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) – “good cholesterol”
  • Triglycerides – a type of fat found in your blood

This is known as a full lipid profile or lipid panel. Your doctor can use this information, along with your blood pressure, height, weight, age, sex, and ethnicity, to predict how likely you are to suffer a heart attack or stroke in the next ten years.

If you’re taking any medications or supplements, including contraceptives, tell your doctor as it can affect your cholesterol reading.

Home cholesterol test kits

Some people prefer to test their cholesterol themselves at home with a self-test kit.

If you’re in a high-risk group and need to test more frequently, home testing kits are a convenient way of checking your cholesterol levels. Using a test strip and a finger prick of blood, the kit can measure your total cholesterol within minutes.

For the best results, you should perform the test first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. We recommend that you don’t eat or drink at least 12 hours before the test.

Heart UK, the leading cholesterol charity, has this advice for using self-test kits:

  • Always read the instructions carefully
  • Make sure the sampling area is dry and your hands are clean
  • Try not to squeeze your finger excessively, it can affect the reading
  • Dispose of your sharps safely (the needle used to prick your finger)

Your reading will be given in millimoles per litre (mmol/l) – this is a way of measuring chemicals in the blood. It should be within one of these ranges:

  • Below 5.0 is a healthy reading (this should be your target)
  • Between 5 and 7.5 is a high cholesterol reading
  • Above 7.5 means you have very high cholesterol

If the cholesterol in your blood is high or very high, then you should make an appointment with your GP to discuss your results.

What happens next/treatment

High cholesterol can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes. Statins are a prescription drug that can lower the amount of “bad cholesterol” in your blood.

You should also consider making some of these lifestyle changes:

  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid high-fat, high-sodium foods
  • Reduce your alcohol intake
  • Exercise regularly (150 minutes of moderate activity per week)
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruit, veg, whole grains, and lean protein

Some foods can help you absorb less cholesterol, such as:

  • Whole grains – oats and barley
  • Fruits like apples, pears, and bananas
  • Beans and legumes (lentils and chickpeas)
  • Vegetables, particularly eggplant and okra

Being overweight can increase your risk of high cholesterol and increase your chances of suffering with cardiovascular disease. Losing weight could significantly improve your heart health and overall wellbeing.

The key takeaway

Getting your cholesterol checked might seem like an inconvenience, but if you’ve got high cholesterol, early detection is key to treating it.

If you’re in a high-risk group, because of your family history, you’re overweight, or you smoke, then it’s vital you check your cholesterol frequently.

If you haven’t got time for a trip to the doctor, then consider investing in a home testing kit. It’s quick, simple to use, and you can do it at a time to suit you.

With medication and lifestyle changes, lowering your cholesterol is possible, and it could reduce your chance of heart disease, a stroke, or cardiovascular disease.

Although all of our content is written and reviewed by healthcare professionals, it should not be substituted for or used as medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please speak to your doctor.

Authored Sep 27, 2021 by Joseph Issac, MPharm
Reviewed Sep 27, 2021 by Prabjeet Saundh, MPharm