What Is Dyslipidemia?

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Being told that you have dyslipidemia can be scary. However, this broad term used to signify that you have one or more parameters on your lipid profile that may be too low or elevated. Luckily, depending on the types of lipids affected, there are many ways to treat this condition – ranging from taking medication to making a few changes in your lifestyle.

What Actually Is Dyslipidemia?

Dyslipidemia is a medical condition that refers to an abnormal level of blood lipids.

The most common type of dyslipidemia is hyperlipidemia, or high lipid levels. Another, less common form of dyslipidemia, hypolipidemia, refers to lipid levels that are abnormally low. Dyslipidemias can affect any lipid parameter, including LDL cholesterol, levels, HDL cholesterol levels, triglycerides, or a combination of these lipids.

When only cholesterol levels are high or low, this is referred to hypercholesterolemia or hypocholesterolemia, respectively. Sometimes, these may also be called a hyperlipoproteinemia or hypolipoproteinemia. When triglycerides are only affected, this may be referred to as hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels) or hypotriglyceridemia (low triglyceride levels). Conversely, if an individual has both triglyceride and cholesterol levels affected, this is referred to as a “combined” or “mixed” dyslipidemia.

What Causes Dyslipidemia?

There are many factors that can cause dyslipidemia - ranging from inherited disorders to your lifestyle.

The causes of dyslipidemia can be divided into two main categories: primary or secondary dyslipidemia.

Primary dyslipidemia refers to abnormal lipid levels that are caused by a mutated gene or genes inherited from one or both parents. The defective genes may cause an abnormal clearance of lipids or may modify how certain lipids are made in the body.

If the dyslipidemia runs in the family, the disease will often have the term “familial” in their name to denote that it is an inherited condition. Individuals with primary dyslipidemias involving increased LDL are at a high risk of developing atherosclerosis early in life, which can lead to premature cardiovascular disease.

Secondary dyslipidemia, on the other hand, is more common and occurs due to a variety of factors involving certain aspects of your lifestyle or certain medical conditions you may have. Secondary hyperlipidemias may be caused by:

  • Poor or high fat, high sugar diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Certain medications - such as beta blockers, certain drugs to treat HIV, oral contraceptives
  • Liver disease
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Hypothyroidism that has not been treated
  • Uncontrolled diabetes

Secondary hypolipidemias, which are less common, may be caused by untreated hyperthyroidism or certain cancers.

How Do You Know that You Have a Dyslipidemia?

There is no true way of knowing whether or not you have a dyslipidemia - whether hyperlipidemia or hypolipidemia - unless you have a lipid panel performed.

This involves having blood drawn at your doctor’s office and having it analyzed for levels of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. In rare cases of extremely high lipids, raised, yellowish bumps referred to as xanthomas may appear on the body.

How Are Dyslipidemias Treated?

There are a variety of treatments and other measures available to address dyslipidemias.

Hypolipidemias are not treated unless they are severe, usually in some cases where the condition is inherited. In some of these cases, the diet is modified and certain fat-soluble vitamins may be administered.

The treatment of hyperlipidemias depends on the severity of the lipid elevation, as well as which types of lipids are affected. A cholesterol-lowering diet and lifestyle modifications are often recommended, and include smoking cessation, increasing exercise and addressing any medical conditions that may be causing the high lipid levels. In some cases, medications are also used to lower your lipids and to decrease your risk of future heart disease.  


Lam JYT. Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Accessed online: 4 June 2016.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Kasper DL et al (eds). Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th edition. New York, McGraw Hill, 2013.

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