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Cholesterol is produced naturally within your body - mainly in your liver. It is also present in saturated fats in your diet (e.g. meat, dairy products and processed foods). Excess saturated fat in your diet increases blood cholesterol.
Lipoproteins are substances (composed of fat and proteins) which carry cholesterol and triglycerides from your liver to wherever they are needed throughout your body.
There are several groups of lipoproteins. Measuring the amounts of these lipoproteins can give an indicator of how much fat is being carried in your blood stream that may be harmful.
A high cholesterol level can contribute to atheroma build up in a coronary artery - causing a restricted blood flow
When the cholesterol level in your blood is high it contributes to the fatty build up in the lining of your blood vessels, called atheroma, which increases your risk of heart disease and strokes.
Most doctors use risk assessment charts to help identify your risk in terms of how likely you are to develop heart or stroke problems in the future. Based on your other risk factors your doctor will decide what cholesterol level is safe for you.
Your initial blood test will give a 'total cholesterol' level. This level will be looked at alongside your other CVD risk factors.
Your doctor may decide that you need a further blood test, called a lipid profile, which is taken after an overnight fast. This provides a detailed breakdown of the different lipoproteins in your blood.
A comparison of total cholesterol and HDL can give a more accurate indicator of risk. This is called the 'total cholesterol / HDL ratio'. Generally a figure greater than 4.5 indicates increasing risk.
If you have a low cardiovascular risk you may be initially advised to try to lower your cholesterol yourself over a period of time.
If your cholesterol levels remain too high, you may need drugs to lower the amount of cholesterol your body manufactures. Drugs to treat high cholesterol are mainly from the 'statin' family and usually have to be taken for life.
Though it is possible to buy some statin medicines over the counter it is always advisable to speak to your doctor before starting any new treatment.
Some people produce more cholesterol than they need. This problem often runs in families and is sometimes called familial hyperlipidaemia or familial hypercholesterolaemia, however it its quite rare in the general population. See Heart UK for more information.