What to Expect When Getting Your Cholesterol Checked

blood draw
dontree_m; istockphoto

A cholesterol test - also known as a lipid panel - is a simple test that is used to check cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your blood. These tests are commonly conducted in your healthcare provider's office, but can also be performed at various health screenings in your community and through home tests purchased at your pharmacy. A cholesterol test is probably the least time consuming and most simple to perform.

It doesn't require much from you but a small sample of your blood, but knowing the results from such an easy-to-perform test can be potentially life-saving. 

Who Needs to Take a Cholesterol Test?

Current guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend that anyone that is 20 years of age and older should have a cholesterol test performed. If you have a close relative - such as a parent, aunt, uncle, or sibling - that has been diagnosed with high cholesterol early in life, as in conditions like familial hypercholesterolemia, your healthcare provider may want to begin monitoring your cholesterol levels sooner than this.

Although these guidelines suggest that you should get your cholesterol checked at least once every four to six years, most healthcare providers will usually check your cholesterol levels at your annual checkup - especially if you have other conditions that could place you at risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

 

The Cholesterol Test: What to Expect and How to Prepare

There isn't much you need to do when preparing for a cholesterol test. Your healthcare provider may ask you to fast - or abstain from eating or drinking - for at least 8 to 12 hours before your test. This will ensure that your test is accurate, since certain foods - especially fatty foods - can influence the results of some components of the test.

Eating or drinking before your appointment may also interfere with other blood tests that your healthcare provider is planning to conduct during your visit.

During your appointment at your healthcare provider's office,  a small amount of blood will be drawn from your arm and sent to a laboratory, where your results will be returned to your healthcare provider within one to three days.  

What Does a Cholesterol Test Look At?

A basic cholesterol test will usually look at four main components:

Knowing what your LDL, HDL, total cholesterol, and triglycerides levels are will allow your healthcare provider to determine your risk of heart disease.

However, some cholesterol tests may provide you with more or less information than this. For example, some home cholesterol tests may only test for total cholesterol levels, which may not give you a complete picture of your lipid health. On the other hand, some cholesterol tests conducted in a medical office go beyond measuring the above four lipid types and could also include components such as oxidized LDL and apolipoprotein levels (although these are rarely measured in a routine cholesterol test).

 

If your cholesterol or triglyceride levels are not within a healthy range, your healthcare provider may recommend a low-fat diet and lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or increasing your physical activity. If your cholesterol or triglyceride levels are still out of range despite improving your lifestyle - or are extremely elevated to begin with - he or she may place you on medication to help get your lipid levels back into a healthy range.

Source:

Dipiro JT, Talbert RL. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiological Approach, 9th ed 2014.

National Cholesterol Education Panel. Third report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) final report. Circulation 2002;106:3143–3421. 

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