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Symptoms and Signs of High Cholesterol

Doctor's Notes on High Cholesterol

High cholesterol is medically known as hypercholesterolemia. This means that there is an elevated level of cholesterol in the bloodstream. High cholesterol is caused by a combination of genetic tendencies (inherited factors) and environmental influences. Consuming foods such as meats, whole milk dairy products, egg yolks, and some kinds of fish cause cholesterol levels to rise, as can being overweight.

High cholesterol does not produce specific signs or symptoms itself; however, it increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases including heart attack, or myocardial infarction. Symptoms of cardiovascular disease can include chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, or pain in the legs during exercise. Other associated symptoms of cardiovascular disease can include fatigue, weakness, heart palpitations, and coughing.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

High Cholesterol Symptoms

High cholesterol is a risk factor for other illnesses and by itself does not cause symptoms. Routine screening blood tests may reveal elevate cholesterol levels in the blood.

When and whom should have their cholesterol checked?

The National Cholesterol Education Program guidelines suggest that everyone aged 20 years and older should have their blood cholesterol level measured at least once every 5 years. It is best to have a blood test called a lipoprotein profile to find out your cholesterol numbers.

High Cholesterol Causes

There are some foods that have a tendency to increase cholesterol and should be avoided if possible:

  • Egg yolks
  • Shellfish
  • Dairy products including butter and some cheeses, including cream cheese
  • Processed meats like bacon
  • Baked goods made with animal fats like lard
  • Fast foods like hamburgers, French fries, and fried chicken
  • Snack foods like microwave popcorn because of their high salt and butter content
  • Red meats

High cholesterol levels are due to a variety of factors including heredity, diet, and lifestyle. Less commonly, underlying illnesses affecting the liver, thyroid, or kidney may affect blood cholesterol levels.

  • Heredity: Genes may influence how the body metabolizes LDL (bad) cholesterol. Familial hypercholesterolemia is an inherited form of high cholesterol that may lead to early heart disease.
  • Weight: Excess weight may modestly increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol level. Losing weight may lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
  • Physical activity/exercise: Regular physical activity may lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Age and sex: Before menopause, women usually have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. As women and men age, their blood cholesterol levels rise until about 60 to 65 years of age. After about age 50 years, women often have higher total cholesterol levels than men of the same age.
  • Alcohol use: Moderate (1-2 drinks daily) alcohol intake increases HDL (good) cholesterol but does not lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Doctors don't know for certain whether alcohol also reduces the risk of heart disease. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver and heart muscle, lead to high blood pressure, and raise triglyceride levels. Because of the risks, alcoholic beverages should not be used as a way to prevent heart disease.
  • Mental stress: Several studies have shown that stress raises blood cholesterol levels over the long term. One way that stress may do this is by affecting your habits. For example, when some people are under stress, they console themselves by eating fatty foods. The saturated fat and cholesterol in these foods contribute to higher levels of blood cholesterol.

Lower Your Cholesterol, Save Your Heart Slideshow

Lower Your Cholesterol, Save Your Heart Slideshow

When you are found to have a high blood level of cholesterol, it can be very helpful to change your diet and lifestyle to lower cholesterol. Lowering cholesterol has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease. Even if you are taking a medication to lower your cholesterol levels, diet and exercise in addition can lead to optimal heart and blood vessel health. The following tips can be simple ways to help you to stay healthy.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.