Cholesterol Levels: Guidelines and Measurement – Verywell Health

Cholesterol is a fat-like waxy substance that moves through the blood. All the cells inside your body have and use cholesterol because it is important for making hormones, vitamins, and other cells.

Your liver can make all the cholesterol the body needs, but you can also get cholesterol from dietary sources. Too much cholesterol in the blood may lead to cardiovascular disease that affects the heart and blood vessels.

This article addresses how cholesterol levels are measured and how they affect your body.

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How Cholesterol Levels Affect Your Health

Your body needs cholesterol to function normally, but it becomes a problem when there is too much bad cholesterol in your blood. Cholesterol can join with other substances, such as calcium or fat, and create thick deposits (plaque) inside your arteries.

Plaque can lead to atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of thick deposits in the blood vessels. Over time, the buildup of plaque can make the arteries narrower and clogged. This makes it harder for blood to move through the arteries.

Too much cholesterol in your body and plaques may eventually cause: 

  • Chest pain (angina) 
  • Clot blocking the flow of blood to the heart (heart attack) 
  • Clot blocking the flow of blood to the head (stroke) 
  • Narrow and blocked coronary arteries that move blood to your heart (coronary artery disease)
  • Narrow and blocked carotid arteries that move blood to your head (carotid artery disease)
  • Narrow and blocked arteries that move blood to your limbs (peripheral artery disease)
  • Sudden stopping of the heart (sudden cardiac arrest)

How Cholesterol Levels Are Measured 

You may not feel any symptoms of high cholesterol until you develop more serious health problems. This is why it is important to have your cholesterol levels measured on a regular basis.

A blood test called a lipid or lipoprotein panel will show your cholesterol levels and help your doctor decide if you need treatment.

The blood test measures: 

  • Total cholesterol: The total amount of cholesterol in your blood, including HDL and LDL 
  • High-density lipoprotein, or HDL: It is called “good” cholesterol and is capable of removing cholesterol from your body by moving it to the liver. 
  • Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL: It is called “bad” cholesterol and can cause plaque buildup.  
  • Non-HDL cholesterol: It is found by subtracting HDL from total cholesterol. It includes LDL and VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein).
  • Triglycerides: A type of fat that can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease 

Cholesterol Levels in Adults

Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). When you get the results of your test, you will see this measurement. You want to pay attention to the following guidelines for healthy cholesterol levels and talk to your doctor if you have questions.

Healthy cholesterol levels for men who are 20 years old and older: 

  • Total cholesterol: 125 mg/dL to 200 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
  • HDL: 40 mg/dL or higher
  • LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Non-HDL: less than 130 mg/dL

Healthy cholesterol levels for women who are 20 years old and older: 

  • Total cholesterol: 125 mg/dL to 200 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
  • HDL: 50 mg/dL or higher
  • LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Non-HDL: less than 130 mg/dL

Cholesterol Levels in Children

Healthy cholesterol levels for children who are 19 years old and younger: 

  • Total cholesterol: less than 170 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: less than 75 mg/dL
  • HDL: more than 45 mg/dL
  • LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Non-HDL: less than 120 mg/dL

How to Lower Cholesterol 

Your doctor may recommend different treatments for lowering your cholesterol. You may start with diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. If they are not enough, you may need to take medications.


Your diet is one of the most important parts of lowering and controlling high cholesterol. Since dietary cholesterol is in foods from animal sources like dairy and meat, you want to first focus on reducing these high-cholesterol foods.

High-cholesterol foods include:

  • Some seafood, such as shrimp
  • Organ meat
  • Full-fat cheese
  • Full-fat butter 
  • Eggs
  • Other full-fat dairy items 

By limiting foods high in cholesterol, you will also reduce saturated and trans fats since they are common in these products. Both saturated and trans fats can make the liver create more cholesterol, so it is important to limit them. 

Change your diet to include more:

  • Lean meats
  • Healthy fats like unsaturated oils
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Legumes 
  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables 
  • Fruits 
  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids


Exercise can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. It can also help you reach a healthy weight that lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease. Try to incorporate some type of physical activity into each day.


In addition to diet and exercise, there are other lifestyle changes that may lower cholesterol. Talk to your doctor before making any drastic changes.

Lifestyle changes include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol, sugar, and salt
  • Managing stress
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting regular physical checkups 

The main goal of all these changes is to lead a heart-healthy life that naturally reduces cholesterol and improves health. 


If lifestyle, diet, and exercise are not enough to lower your cholesterol levels, then you may need to take medications. Your doctor will evaluate your risk of cardiovascular disease and help choose the right treatment plan.

Medications include:

  • Statins to lower how much cholesterol the liver makes  
  • Bile acid sequestrants to block bile acid in the stomach and lower LDL  
  • Ezetimibe to prevent the absorption of dietary cholesterol
  • PCSK9 inhibitors to block the PCSK9 protein and lower LDL 
  • Bempedoic acid to lower LDL

Statins are the most common medication prescribed for high cholesterol. However, they can have side effects. If you experience side effects, discuss them with your doctor. 

A Word From Verywell 

It is important to know the guidelines for normal cholesterol levels so you are prepared when you have a blood test. If the results you receive are higher than normal, you should not panic. Talk to your doctor about lowering and controlling your cholesterol levels. 

There are many steps you can take to manage high cholesterol levels. It is important not to get discouraged if your levels do not go down right away. Continue talking to your doctors and try new lifestyle changes or medications. It may take up to six months or longer to see improvements in your numbers.  

Although you do not want to panic, you also do not want to ignore the results of the blood test. You want to take steps to lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other problems caused by high cholesterol.