Cholesterol is a type of fat in your blood. Most cholesterol is made by your body, but eating fatty foods can lead to high cholesterol levels. Your arteries may clog up with the fatty cholesterol and which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
You cannot tell or feel if you have high cholesterol.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about your overall heart risk and what you can do to keep your heart and cholesterol numbers well controlled.
With treatment and lifestyle changes, the risks of complications from high cholesterol are much less.
If you need medication, take it every day as prescribed and ask questions if you don't understand anything.
How do I know if I have high cholesterol?
High cholesterol usually does not have symptoms. The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is to have a blood test called a lipid profile. This measures the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. Read more about cholesterol testing.
What is the treatment for high cholesterol?
Your doctor will assess your risk of heart attack or stroke based on your lipid profile results and other risk factors such as age, sex, blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. Your doctor may give you medication such as statins to lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
What else can I do to lower my cholesterol?
You may be able to reduce your cholesterol by making changes to your lifestyle such as:
Eating healthy foods, including lots of fruit and vegetables, low or reduced fat milk, lean meat, nuts and seeds.
Avoiding takeaways and deep fried foods, cakes, biscuits, pastries and chips.
Reducing red meat, cheese and butter.
Staying at a healthy weight.
Exercising regularly – being active for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
Not drinking too much alcohol.
(Image source: Best Practice Advocacy Centre New Zealand)
These make up your 'blood lipid profile' – lipids are just another name for the fatty substances in the body and bloodstream.
New Zealand health guidelines for acceptable blood cholesterol levels are:
HDL cholesterol – greater than 1.0 mmol/L
LDL cholesterol – less than 2.0 mmol/L
Triglycerides – less than 1.7 mmol/L
Total cholesterol – less than 4.0 mmol/L
TC/HDL ratio – less than 4.0
What do my cholesterol test results mean?
Your doctor will advise you of the results of the blood tests. The results are not interpreted on their own and not used to diagnose a disease. Instead, they provide information on your overall health and your risk of heart attack and stroke. Your doctor will also other cardiovascular disease risk factors such as age, sex, blood pressure, smoking and diabetes when deciding whether treatment is needed. Sometimes high cholesterol levels can be an 'early warning' to make lifestyle changes to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
When and where do I go for the test?
Normally, your doctor will ask you to have the cholesterol test at the nearest community diagnostic laboratory, or the practice nurse may be able to take the blood sample.
If you have had recent surgery, a heart attack or been unwell (eg, influenza), it is better to wait at least six weeks before having the test done, for a more accurate result.
Pregnant women should wait at least six weeks after the baby is born to have cholesterol measured, as cholesterol is higher during pregnancy.
How is the cholesterol test carried out?
Some cholesterol tests can be conducted with a finger-prick blood sample, but more detailed testing requires a blood sample collected from a vein in the arm.
You may need to fast (go without food and most drink apart from water) for about eight hours before taking the test. If so, your local community diagnostic laboratory or doctor will tell you in advance, and you can have your test done first thing in the morning to minimise the inconvenience of fasting. You should still be allowed to drink water and take your normal medications – do not stop taking these unless your doctor advises you to.
People taking blood-thinning medications (for example aspirin or warfarin), or those with bleeding or clotting problems, should inform the nurse or laboratory staff of this before the blood sample is taken.
This page is aimed at health professionals or those interested in more detailed information.