What Is a Cholesterol Test?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on April 23, 2023
4 min read

A complete cholesterol test checks your blood to see if your cholesterol and triglycerides are at a healthy level. This will help your doctor estimate your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Once you reach age 20, you’ll probably have this test every five years. You may need a cholesterol test more often if you:

  • Are a man over 45
  • Are a woman over 50
  • Have cholesterol greater than 200
  • Have low HDL “good” cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL if you’re male or less than 50 mg/dL if you’re female
  • Are obese, have high blood pressure, or have another condition that puts you at higher risk for high cholesterol
  • Are on treatment for high cholesterol

You may need to stop eating and drinking at least nine hours before the test. Do not take any medicines either during this time unless your doctor told you to. If you do, it will affect the results. If you schedule your test in the morning so you’ll be asleep for most of your fast, you won’t get too hungry. Sometimes your doctor will tell you that you may eat normally the day of the test.

The American Heart Association recommends you have the test at your doctor's office. The test might also be done at a hospital or at a lab. If you see your doctor for the test, you’ll know:

  • The test is done by a qualified person.
  • The results are accurate.
  • The follow-up care is personalized to your needs.

Community or workplace tests can be accurate if they are done by qualified staff. If you’ve not fasted before the test, you can only get your HDL and total cholesterol levels. Share the results with your doctor, regardless of where the test is done.

You may hear your doctor call a cholesterol test a lipid panel. Your doctor will review your test and talk with you about your results, numbers that measure the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.

Total cholesterol level. This is a measure of your HDL “good” and LDL “bad” cholesterol. The higher your total cholesterol level is, the more likely you are to have a heart problem. The good news is that your doctor can help you lower it. The amount of total cholesterol in your blood will be a number:

200 mg/dL or less: A healthy level
200 to 239 mg/dL: Almost an unhealthy level
240 mg/dL or more: An unhealthy level

LDL “bad” cholesterol levels. This type of fat can clog your arteries when there’s too much in your blood, and clogged arteries can lead to a heart attack or stroke. A low LDL level helps protect you from both. The amount of LDL “bad” cholesterol in your blood will be a number:

Less than 100 mg/dL: A healthy level (if you have heart disease, your doctor may recommend an LDL of 70 mg/dL or lower.)
100 to 129 mg/dL: An almost healthy level
130 to 159 mg/dL: An almost unhealthy level
160 to 189 mg/dL: An unhealthy level
190 mg/dL and higher: A very unhealthy, dangerous level

HDL “good” cholesterol levels. This is the “good” cholesterol that helps keep the “bad” LDL cholesterol from building up inside your arteries. Unlike the other numbers from a cholesterol test, where a high number is dangerous to your health, with HDL, a high number is healthy, so that’s the result you want.

Less than 40 mg/dL for men: An unhealthy level
Less than 50 mg/dL for women: An unhealthy level
60 mg/dL or higher for men and women: A healthy level

Triglyceride levels. Your body makes this type of fat from the food you eat. High levels, in combination with either low HDL or high LDL, can clog your arteries. As with LDL levels, you want this number to be low:

Less than 150 mg/dL: A healthy level
150 to 199 mg/dL: An almost unhealthy level
200 to 499 mg/dL: An unhealthy level
500 mg/dL and higher: A very unhealthy, dangerous level

Not everyone's target levels are the same. Your doctor will discuss your specific goals with you.

  • If all your numbers are in healthy ranges, your doctor probably won't test you again for five years. Keep up the good work!
  • If any of your numbers are in an unhealthy range, your doctor may suggest new diet and exercise habits to help you bring them in line. Often, small changes can have big results. If that alone doesn't work, your doctor may prescribe medicine.