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Home / High Cholesterol / Recognising the symptoms of high cholesterol

Recognising the symptoms of high cholesterol

Discover the high cholesterol symptoms and signs

High cholesterol is when you have too much fat in your blood. When cholesterol levels are high, it can lead to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease including high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

Closeup of atherosclerosis

Treating high cholesterol is important because it can lead to heart problems without showing symptoms.

Continue reading as we delve deeper into the importance of getting screened for high cholesterol and why this condition shouldn’t be ignored.

How common is it to experience high cholesterol symptoms?

Symptoms of high cholesterol are not very common, as high cholesterol usually has no symptoms. This means it can happen without us knowing until it's too late. This is why it is important to visit your doctor regularly to get your cholesterol level checked.

What is familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH)?

This is a genetic condition which may cause visible signs of high cholesterol.

FH is caused by a mutation in one or more genes. This makes your liver less able to remove excess LDL cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol). This means the LDL level in your blood can get too high and puts you at greater risk of early heart disease.

Physical signs of FH occur when extra cholesterol builds up in different areas of the body and can include the following:

Physical signs of familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH)
Image 1 Bumps or swellings around your elbows, knees, knuckles, or the Achilles tendon
Image 2 Small, yellow lumps near the inner corner of your eyes.
Image 3 A white or greyish ring around your iris (the coloured part of your eye).

Are there any high cholesterol symptoms in the eyes?

Yes, high cholesterol can cause yellow, fatty deposits in the skin of the eyelids. This usually occurs near the inner part of the eyelids. It can also cause a condition known as ‘arcus senilis’, where a white or greyish ring develops on the outer edge of the cornea.

Can high cholesterol make me tired?

High cholesterol doesn’t directly cause fatigue however, it can lead to heart diseases, such as coronary artery disease, that do. With this condition, plaque can build up in your artery walls, causing them to narrow. This reduces blood flow to organs and muscles, which can make you feel tired, and weak and cause chest pain. It can also make you feel short of breath, especially during physical activities.

Can high cholesterol cause erectile dysfunction?

There is evidence Trusted source Nature Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source that suggests a link between high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction (ED). As cholesterol can build up in the walls of the arteries, blood flow through becomes restricted. This means that it can clog the blood vessels that supply blood to the penis.

When you are aroused, blood rushes into the penis causing an erection. Since strong erections depend on good blood flow, it may become harder to get and maintain an erection if the blood vessels supplying the penis become blocked.

This is why ED can sometimes be an early warning sign of heart disease.

Do the symptoms of high cholesterol in females differ compared to males?

No, there are usually no symptoms of high cholesterol in either men or women. However, one difference seen between genders is the level of cholesterol throughout stages of life.

According to studies Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source , before menopause, oestrogen produced by the ovaries helps to protect women from heart disease. Other studies Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source also show that after menopause, women have higher levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and Triglycerides and lower levels of HDL cholesterol.

This means that women have a greater risk of heart disease after menopause compared to men.

How is high cholesterol diagnosed?

The only way to know if you have high cholesterol is by having a cholesterol test. This usually involves a blood test, which can either be a finger-prick test or taking a blood sample.

These tests check your levels of different types of cholesterol, such as:

  • low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol
  • high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol
  • triglycerides - these are a type of fat in your blood that is used for energy
  • total cholesterol - this is the total amount of cholesterol in your blood

The table below is a guide to healthy levels of cholesterol. However, your doctor will discuss your individual risk with you.

Type Optimal result
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) Below 3.0 mmol/L
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) Above 1.0 mmol/L for men
Above 1.2 mmol/L for women
Total cholesterol Below 5.0 mmol/L
Total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio (TC:HDL) 6.0mmol/L or lower (above 6 is considered high risk - the lower, the better)

After you receive your results, your doctor will explain what these mean and the next steps.

If the test shows high cholesterol levels, your doctor will talk to you about options to lower it. This might include things like:

  • changing your diet (avoiding certain foods high in cholesterol however, not all foods that are high in cholesterol are bad for you)
  • maintaining a healthy weight and BMI
  • getting regular exercise
  • limiting alcohol
  • taking cholesterol-lowering medicines

When should I see a doctor?

It’s important to see your primary care doctor for regular checkups including a blood test to keep an eye on your cholesterol levels.

If you have health issues or a family history of high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about getting a cholesterol test.

What happens if I leave high cholesterol untreated?

If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, it’s important that you get it treated. If you leave it untreated, it can increase your risk of experiencing health problems.

Over time, high cholesterol leads to plaque buildup in the artery walls. If this is left untreated, this plaque gets bigger. This means that the blood vessels become narrowed or blocked.

Graphic of a normal artery vs a cholesterol-blocked artery.

When plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it is known as coronary artery disease (CAD). If the heart doesn’t get enough blood, it gets weaker and stops working as normal. This can lead to a heart attack, and chest pain and over time can cause heart failure.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol are also linked together. When plaque builds up in the blood vessels it causes your arteries to become hard and narrow. This makes it harder for blood to flow through the network of blood vessels in your body which means that your heart has to work harder to pump blood. As a result, your blood pressure rises.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 26-04-2024
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Further reading

5 ways to lower cholesterol for a healthy heart

5 ways to lower cholesterol for a healthy heart

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Top 10 cholesterol-lowering foods

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