High Cholesterol, Explained in Less Than 2 Minutes

This sneaky condition often doesn’t show symptoms until it’s serious.

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Cholesterol has quite the reputation. It’s caused people to swear off eggs and think all cholesterol is bad, bad, bad. What many people don’t know, though, is that some cholesterol is actually good—and essential to your health. (Also, learn more about eggs and your heart health here.)

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that’s found in all the cells of your body. Your body needs it to do important jobs, such as making hormones and digesting fatty foods. Your body produces cholesterol to perform these duties—and it makes just the amount it needs.

You may be wondering: OK, so when does cholesterol become a bad thing?

It’s important to know that there are different types of cholesterol. There’s LDL (low-density lipoprotein), which is the bad guy, and then there’s HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which is the good guy.

LDL is considered the bad type of cholesterol because, when there’s too much of it in the blood, it can combine with other substances to form artery-clogging plaque. Over time, this can build up and cause serious problems, such as heart disease, stroke, or heart attack. However, what causes LDL cholesterol to rise is *not* the dietary cholesterol found in eggs and other foods—it’s saturated fat.

HDL is considered the good type of cholesterol, because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the blood. It then escorts LDL cholesterol to the liver to be broken down and passed by the body.

Since HDL is helpful to the body, it’s actually important to have higher levels of HDL in the blood. Too-low levels of HDL are a risk factor for heart disease.

The cholesterol that you want less of may go without saying, but that’s the LDL. Here’s what healthy—and unhealthy—cholesterol numbers look like:

LDL cholesterol

  • Ideal LDL cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/dL (particularly if patients are diabetic, or have vascular disease or heart disease)

  • Normal LDL cholesterol: Between 100 and 129 mg/dL

  • Borderline high LDL cholesterol: Between 130 and 159 mg/dL

  • High LDL cholesterol: Between 160 and 189 mg/dL

  • Very high LDL cholesterol: Greater than 190 mg/dL

HDL cholesterol

  • Ideal HDL cholesterol: Greater than 60 mg/dL

  • Too-low HDL cholesterol: Less than 40 mg/dL

If you get your cholesterol checked (which you definitely should), you’ll likely get a read-out of your full cholesterol profile. These numbers are LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and total cholesterol.


Triglycerides aren’t cholesterol per se, but they are are form of fat in the blood that also increases your risk of heart disease, especially in women.

  • Ideal triglyceride level: less than 150 mg/dL

  • Borderline high triglyceride level: Between 150 and 199 mg/dL

  • High triglyceride level: Greater than 200 mg/dL

Total cholesterol

Total cholesterol is a sort of “cholesterol score.” It’s calculated by adding your LDL and HDL, and 20 percent of your triglyceride level.

  • Ideal total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL

  • Borderline high total cholesterol: Between 200 and 239 mg/dL

  • High cholesterol: More than 240 mg/dL

Knowing your cholesterol numbers is the first step to keeping your cholesterol levels healthy, and the only way to know your cholesterol numbers is to get them checked. High cholesterol is tricky; it often doesn’t show symptoms until it presents as something serious, such as a heart attack or stroke. Learn more about how often to get a cholesterol test.  

How to Treat High Cholesterol

High cholesterol can be treated with medication, but not everybody with elevated cholesterol needs drugs to lower cholesterol. It’s possible to lower cholesterol through lifestyle changes, which include:

By managing your cholesterol, you’re giving yourself a better shot at a happy, healthy heart—and life.