High cholesterol is usually a "silent disease." It does not normally cause any signs and symptoms that you can feel. A lab test is the main way to detect high cholesterol. For more information on cholesterol testing, see Testing, testing.

So what's the problem with high cholesterol? High levels of LDL-C (the "bad cholesterol") and total cholesterol and low levels of HDL-C (the "good cholesterol") in the blood have been linked to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque (a hard deposit of cholesterol and other substances from the blood) builds up on the blood vessel walls, which makes them harder and narrower. Plaques can also break off, increasing the risk of blood clots that can block the blood vessels. This increases the risk of:

  • heart attacks: When blood vessels supplying the heart are blocked by a clot, portions of the heart muscle may die due to lack of oxygen and nutrients.
  • strokes: When blood vessels supplying the brain are blocked by a clot, brain tissue death and damage may occur due to lack of blood supply.
  • angina: When blood vessels supplying the heart are narrowed, preventing the heart from getting all of the oxygen it needs (but enough so that the muscle doesn't die), chest pain can develop.
  • peripheral vascular disease (circulation problems), also called peripheral arterial disease: When blood vessels supplying the arms and legs are narrowed or blocked, pain while using the affected limb may occur.

Left untreated, high cholesterol can lead to serious complications, even death. So it's important to have your cholesterol checked as often as your doctor recommends. Effective lowering of cholesterol levels saves lives. If you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower your cholesterol.