What is High Cholesterol?
Cholesterol, which is known as a lipid, is a substance that is found in your body and in certain foods. In the right levels, it keeps your body functioning in a healthy and normal way. However, if you have an excessively high level of these lipids, it can lead to serious health conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.
What is High Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a substance that is found in two different places. The first is the body, where it is made mainly by the liver and is vital to keep your body functioning in a healthy and normal way. Cholesterol can also be found in certain foods.
The substance, which is fatty and waxy, is also known as a lipid. If you have an excessively high level of these lipids, it is bad for your health and you have what is called high cholesterol. This excess of cholesterol, which lives in your blood, clogs up your arteries and makes it harder for blood to pump around your body and reach vital organs such as your heart. Blood clots can also form, which can cut off the blood flow or break away and become lodged elsewhere, causing a stroke or heart attack.
High cholesterol can also lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, angina, mini-strokes (TIAs), vascular dementia and peripheral arterial disease (PADs).
High Cholesterol Symptoms and Warning Signs
High cholesterol does not cause any symptoms, so there is no physical way of knowing that the amount of cholesterol you have is above normal. You will only find out if you have this problem by having a blood test.
Causes of High Cholesterol
There are a number of factors that can lead to increased levels of cholesterol in the body. As a high level of cholesterol can lead to a number of other very serious medical conditions such as heart attacks and strokes, it is essential to identify the possible causes of a high cholesterol level.
- Lifestyle and diet choices are possibly the two biggest causes of high cholesterol; this includes eating unhealthy foods, particularly those that are high in saturated fats
- Smoking, which can cause narrowing of the arteries
- Having diabetes
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Genetics – a family history of high cholesterol will also increase your risks of developing it
How is High Cholesterol Diagnosed?
There are no physical symptoms of high cholesterol. You can only find out if you have a high amount of cholesterol by having a blood test.
Your GP may suggest you have a blood test if they think your cholesterol levels could be high. They may suggest testing your cholesterol levels because of your weight, age or any other conditions you already have like diabetes or high blood pressure.
You should ask your GP for a cholesterol test if you have never been tested before and are over 40 years old and/or overweight. If high cholesterol and heart problems run in your family, you should also be tested for high cholesterol
Testing for high cholesterol
There are two different methods of testing cholesterol:
- A blood test, which will involve taking blood from your arm with a needle. This is sent away to check your cholesterol level. The results normally take a few days to come back.
- A finger-prick test, which is done by pricking your finger and placing a drop of blood onto a strip of paper. This blood is put into a machine to check your cholesterol in just a few minutes. This can also help to spot early symptoms of diabetes and heart disease.
If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, you will receive advice on how to bring it down by a doctor or nurse. Changing your diet and taking certain tablets like statins may also be recommended.
High Cholesterol Treatment
If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, the first step is to make changes to your diet and lifestyle. You will need to exercise more often, stop drinking excessively, stop smoking altogether and eat healthier foods. High cholesterol foods include those high in saturated fat, including fatty meats or meat products, butter, lard, cream, cheese and sugar. These should be replaced with healthier foods like fruit and vegetables. However, if after a few months your levels haven’t reduced to a lower level, you may need high cholesterol medication.
Statins block a type of chemical called an enzyme, which makes cholesterol. Once blocked, the level of cholesterol in your blood goes down. Some people are intolerant to statins, suffering side effects like headaches and stomach problems. Statins must be taken for life, as cholesterol levels will rise once again after the medication is stopped. For that reason, statins are only prescribed to people with a high risk of heart disease.
Aspirin is sometimes prescribed to people over the age of 40 to stop blood clots forming. These are prescribed in low, daily doses.
Ezetimibe is an alternative high cholesterol treatment to statins. Cholesterol is absorbed from your intestines, where your food and bile juices are, and into your blood. Ezetimibe works by blocking this absorption. You can take this medication alone, or alongside a statin. While it rarely causes side effects on its own, it is not believed to be as effective as a statin.
Bile acid sequestrants (resins) or fibrates are other alternatives if the above medications do not suit you. Bile acid sequestrants (resins) medication binds itself to bile acids to stop them from being reabsorbed from the intestines into your blood.
What is a healthy cholesterol level?
You should look to lower your cholesterol to these levels:
- A total cholesterol level of less than 5 (mmol/L)
- LDL cholesterol level of less than 3 (mmol/L)
- HDL cholesterol level of greater than 1 (mmol/L)
'Bad' LDL cholesterol is the most important measurement, which you should always aim to keep below 3 mmol/L (millimoles per litre of blood), even if your total cholesterol is above the limits.
What cholesterol levels are considered to be high?
Your blood cholesterol is measured in units of millimoles per litre of blood (mmol/L). Healthy adults should have a total cholesterol level of 5 mmol/L or below. If you are at risk of developing arterial disease, your cholesterol level should be a total of 4 mmol/L or less. A healthy adult will have an LDL level of a maximum of 3 mmol/L.If you are considered high risk, your level should be 2 mmol/L or lower. Your ideal HDL cholesterol level should be above 1 mmol/L. You could be at risk of heart disease if your HDL is lower than 1 mmol/L.
Why treat high cholesterol?
If you suffer from high cholesterol, research has proven that you are at a higher risk of a range of serious medical conditions, including heart attacks, strokes, peripheral arterial disease and the narrowing of your arteries.Cholesterol can build up in the artery wall, which can lead to a restricted blood flow to your brain, heart and the rest of your body, which increases your risk of developing a blood clot.With high cholesterol, you are at a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, which can cause pain in your chest or arm (angina) during physical activity or when you are stressed.
What risk factors increase the chance of having high cholesterol?
Certain lifestyle choices can increase your risk of developing high cholesterol, including:
- Being overweight or obese
- An unhealthy diet
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Not taking enough exercise or physical activity
If you have high blood pressure and diabetes, high cholesterol is quite a common affliction to have as well. Kidney or liver disease and an underactive thyroid gland can also increase your risk of high cholesterol.
A number of factors associated with high cholesterol can increase your chances of having a heart attack or stroke, including:
- Your age (there is an increased risk as you get older)
- Your family's medical history
- Your gender (men are more likely to develop heart disease than women)
Your ethnicity (people who are Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi or Pakistani are at a higher risk of a heart attack)
How do you choose the right medication for you?
I’ve read a lot of negative articles about statins in the news, are they as bad as they are made out to be?
Statins are very widely reported on and have gained a relatively poor reputation. Statins are some of the most widely used medicines in the UK. It is considered that the risk of side effects is far outweighed by the benefits they provide those who take them. Statins reduce cholesterol levels, which also lowers your risk of having heart or circulatory problems.All medicines come with the risk of certain side effects, and statins is no exception. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions or concerns before taking statins. Always read the patient information leaflet thoroughly for a comprehensive list of side effects that you may suffer; this will make you aware of any side effects you may need to report to your doctor. You will need to have a blood test every 6-12 months while using statins; this will show how effective they are and if you have suffered any reactions from using them.
What are statins?
How will I know if my statins are working?
Will I need to take statins for the rest of my life?
How long will statins take to work?
How often do I need to take statins?
What should I do if I miss a dose of my statin?
What is the difference between the different types of statins?
What is Ezetimibe?
Can I have grapefruit or grapefruit juice with my cholesterol tablets?
What is the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease?
Does high cholesterol increase your risk of dementia?
Can vegetarians have high cholesterol?
Are high blood pressure and high cholesterol connected?
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