High Cholesterol Symptoms

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2024

High cholesterol, also known as hyperlipidemia, is a common health condition that occurs when there is too much cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is a lipid. Lipids are fatty substances that help the body function.1-4

For example, cholesterol helps digest food and produce vital hormones. One type of cholesterol, known as low-density cholesterol (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, can build up and form plaques in the arteries. This can lead to clogged arteries and other complications if left untreated.1-4

Know your risk level

There are 2 main types of high cholesterol:2,3

  • Familial hyperlipidemia is inherited from family members.
  • Acquired hyperlipidemia is brought on by environmental and lifestyle habits.

Familial hyperlipidemia is quite rare. It occurs when the body is not able to get rid of excess cholesterol. Excess cholesterol forms plaques that build up in the arteries. Even though this type is less common, it is good to know if anyone in your family has had it. If so, genetic testing can tell you whether you have the condition too.2,3,5

As for acquired hyperlipidemia, people with the following risk factors should have their cholesterol levels checked regularly:2-5

  • Family history of high cholesterol
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Older age

Your doctor will let you know if you need to make any lifestyle changes or take medicine to help control your cholesterol.3,4,6

Signs and symptoms of high cholesterol

In its early stages, high cholesterol often causes no symptoms. This makes it hard to diagnose early.1,2,4,6

As high cholesterol progresses, people may begin to have more noticeable symptoms, like:1,2,4,6

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing, especially when active
  • Leg cramps
  • Jaw pain
  • Confusion or trouble speaking

Familial hyperlipidemia has unique signs and symptoms. These may include:2,4

  • Xanthomas – Yellowish, fatty bumps on the skin caused by high cholesterol
  • Corneal arcus – White or grayish ring around the iris of the eye

Complications of high cholesterol

If high cholesterol is left untreated, plaque can build up in the arteries. This can lead to severe complications, including:1-4

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Treatment options for high cholesterol

Managing high cholesterol involves lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medicine.2,4

Lifestyle changes

The majority of people with high cholesterol in the United States have acquired hyperlipidemia. For them, lifestyle changes can make a huge difference in cholesterol levels. Here are some things you can do to reduce your “bad” cholesterol levels:4

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
  • Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise 5 times a week.
  • Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Manage other health conditions you may have with appropriate treatments.
  • Avoid tobacco use, which can cause increased inflammation.

Medicine

If lifestyle changes are not enough, doctors may prescribe medicines like statins. These drugs help lower cholesterol levels by stopping the production of cholesterol in the liver. This helps reduce the risk of heart diseases that are linked to high cholesterol.2,4

When to seek medical help

If you have chest pain or get out of breath easily, make an appointment to see your doctor. And if you have a family history of high cholesterol, get your cholesterol tested regularly so you can manage it before it leads to health complications. Regular checkups and awareness of your risk level play a big role in early detection and prevention.1-5

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.