What Is a Lipid Panel?

What to expect when undergoing this test

lab report for cholesterol with pencil
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A lipid panel is a blood test that measures the level of different types of fat (lipid molecules) in your blood. Many simply refer to it as a cholesterol test, as it measures total cholesterol and the two types individually; it also measures triglycerides. A lipid panel is often ordered as part of routine blood work conducted during an annual physical exam to screen for risk of cardiovascular concerns, but may be done at other times if certain diseases are suspected by your doctor.

Purpose of the Test

High fat and cholesterol levels tend to build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and vascular disease. A lipid panel provides a report of the approximate level of the fat in your blood, which is strongly correlated with the risk of disease in your arteries. There are several types of fat measured with a lipid panel:

A lipid panel may be used to assess your disease risk or to help determine the likelihood of arterial disease (while the test cannot diagnosis the concern, high cholesterol and fat levels are indicative of it).

Screening

Current guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend that anyone 20 years of age and older should have a cholesterol test, which is part of the lipid panel. These guidelines suggest that you should get your cholesterol checked at least once every four to six years, but some health insurance plans may pay for a screening lipid panel more frequently than that. 

If you have a close relative, such as a parent, sibling, aunt, or uncle who has high cholesterol, your doctor may begin monitoring your cholesterol and other lipid levels before you reach age 20. And if you have a family history of a condition such as familial hypercholesterolemia, then you may need to have a lipid panel more frequently than general guidelines would suggest. 

Diagnosis

High total cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels, and a low HDL level are strongly associated with an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, which leads to heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease. There are some warning signs of these conditions, such as angina (chest pain), which can occur before a heart attack, or a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which can occur before a stroke. If you have had signs of vascular diseases, such as weak pulse, diminished sensation in your legs, or cool temperature of your legs, your doctor is likely to order a lipid panel. 

If you have signs of liver failure, such as abnormal liver function tests, abdominal swelling, or yellow coloring or your skin or eyes, your doctor will check your cholesterol levels with a lipid panel as well, as liver disease can affect your numbers. Similarly, if you have diabetes, unwanted weight gain or weight loss, or gastrointestinal disease, your doctor is likely to get a lipid panel as part of your diagnostic workup. 

Before the Test

Getting a lipid test is generally a fairly uncomplicated process.

Timing

In general, the actual procedure to have your blood drawn should take about 10 to 15 minutes, and you should be able to leave about five minutes after that. However, if you are not having your test done as part of a doctor's appointment, give yourself about an hour.

Location 

Usually, your doctor will order the test and you can either have it done in the doctor's office, a lab, or at a nearby hospital. This depends on your health insurance policy, as well as the ability of the clinic or lab to accommodate you. The test may be available at community health screening events. Alternatively, you can consider home testing kits available online or at your pharmacy.

Ask ahead of time whether you need an appointment to have your lipid panel done (you may not).

What to Wear

You can wear whatever you want to the test, and it is easier if you either wear short or loose sleeves that you can easily pull up to have your blood drawn from your arm.

Food and Drink

Often, a lipid panel is considered more accurate if you have been fasting. Abstaining from food and drink for at least eight to 12 hours before your test may be advised. Certain foods, such as fatty foods or sugary foods, can particularly influence the test results, making them less reliable. 

Cost and Health Insurance

In general, most health plans that cover preventive medicine cover the cost of a lipid panel, sometimes with a copay. However, you should not assume anything, and it is best to check with your plan. You can find out if the test is covered and if you have a copay by calling the customer service number on your insurance card. 

If you are paying for the test yourself, you should know that there is probably a technician fee for having your blood drawn, as well as a processing fee from the lab. You can usually find out the total cost by asking at the desk when you check in.

What to Bring

You should bring something to eat or drink for after the test, especially if you have been fasting. You should also bring your test order form (if applicable), your insurance card, a method of payment, and a form of identification. 

During the Test

You probably will not see your doctor during your cholesterol test. You will likely see a phlebotomist, who is a technician specialized in drawing blood, or a nurse.

Pre-Test

Before your test, you will need to check in. This is when you present your order form (unless your doctor sent his order electronically), show identification, and pay a fee/copay.

You might have to sign some forms about HIPPA, which is a patient privacy act that states that your healthcare providers cannot share your medical information without your permission. Other forms, such as those confirming your consent or medical history, may also be required.

Throughout the Test

When you meet the person who will draw your blood, you will be asked to sit and possibly to place your arm on an armrest. He or she will likely ask if you are left- or right-handed, as technicians often prefer to draw blood from your non-dominant arm. You may be asked to make a fist and hold it until the test is complete. 

He or she will check the veins in your arm, apply a tourniquet, clean the area, and insert a needle into the vein to collect the blood. You will feel a pinprick-like sensation when the needle is inserted. This may hurt a bit, like a mosquito bite, but it might not hurt at all. You will probably have a needle in your arm for less than a minute, after which it will be removed, and gauze will be pressed on the site of the draw to stop any bleeding. You should not move your hand or arm during the test.

Be sure to speak up if you are feeling lightheaded or dizzy during the blood draw.

Post-Test

After a few seconds, your phlebotomist or another technician will check to see if the bleeding has stopped and will place a bandage over the small puncture wound. 

If your bleeding does not stop within a minute, you will probably be asked to press gauze on the wound with your other hand until your technician notices that the bleeding has stopped.

After the Test

You will likely be told that you can leave as soon as the bleeding stops and a bandage is placed. If you have been fasting, it is a good idea to get something to eat and drink. You can resume your normal activities—including driving—after having this blood test, but it is best to refrain from heavy lifting or contact sports/activities for about four to six hours. 

Managing Side Effects

Some people are very prone to bruising or bleeding after a blood test. If your wound oozes blood, looks swollen, feels warm to the touch, or becomes black and blue, you should tell your doctor. This can happen if you are taking blood thinners or if you were especially physically active after having the blood test. It may also mean that your doctor needs to check to see if you have a bleeding disorder. 

Interpreting Results

Your test results should be ready within a week. They will be sent to your doctor and you might receive the results as well. Typically, you should see the results on one sheet which should include your levels and the ideal reference levels.

Total Cholesterol

  • Target: Below 200 mg/dL
  • Low: Below 40 mg/dL
  • Borderline High: 200 to 239 mg/dL
  • High: Above 240 mg/dL

LDL Cholesterol

  • Target: Below 100 mg/dL (100 to 129 mg/dL is normal, but not ideal)
  • Low: Below 50 mg/dL
  • Borderline High: 130 to 159 mg/dL
  • High: Above 160 mg/dL

HDL Cholesterol

  • Target: Above 60 mg/dL
  • Low: Below 40 mg/dL

Triglycerides

  • Target: Below 150 mg/dL
  • Low: Below 50 mg/dL
  • Borderline High: 150 to 199 mg/dL
  • High: Above 200 mg/dL

Again, high levels of total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides and low levels of HDL cholesterol are strongly associated with an increased risk of developing vascular disease.

Low levels of total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides are not common, and that indicates that you are at risk of severe malnutrition, often as a result of conditions such as malabsorption or anorexia nervosa. 

Follow-Up

If your lipid levels are in the ideal range, you don't need to worry, but you should have them repeated at your next medical check-up because lipid levels tend to become more problematic as people age. 

If your lipid levels are not in the ideal range, your doctor may recommend dietary and lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or increasing your physical activity, particularly if your level is only marginally off-target. However, if your levels are particularly high, or if you have already attempted to reach your target levels with diet, your doctor may recommend cholesterol-lowering medications. HDL levels can be improved with diet and exercise. 

Results that are not on target mean you'll need to have a repeat lipid panel in approximately six to nine months to assess your progress.

Generally, lipid panel results would only prompt additional types of tests if you have signs that indicate vascular diseases, such as chronic hypertension, or symptoms of a TIA or angina. 

Other Considerations

Some lipid tests may provide you with more or less information than a standard lipid panel. For example, home cholesterol tests may only test for total cholesterol levels. On the other hand, some specialized lipid tests may go beyond measuring the standard four lipid types, or could include components such as oxidized LDL and apolipoprotein levels, which are rarely measured in a routine lipid panel. 

A Word From Verywell

A lipid panel is among the most routine and most useful tests for evaluating your risk of heart disease and stroke. This test is nothing to become anxious about. If your results are not optimal, you should not panic, but you also should not ignore them. Total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels can usually be managed quite well with lifestyle modification and/or medication to substantially lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

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