How to Tell If You Have High Cholesterol

If you are wondering if you can feel whether or not your cholesterol is too high, the answer may surprise you: you often cannot feel that your cholesterol levels are elevated. But if you ignore your high cholesterol, it could place you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for over 610,000 death annually.

High cholesterol is one of the main risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease besides having high blood pressure or being obese. Unfortunately, there are no symptoms of high cholesterol in most cases. So, despite feeling healthy, you could still have dangerously high cholesterol levels and not even know it.

A doctor consulting his patient about high cholesterol
Monkey Business Images  / Getty Images

Signs and Symptoms

There are generally no overt signs or symptoms of high cholesterol. If you do have symptoms, they related to the consequences of the disease rather than the disease itself. You cannot "feel" high cholesterol if you have it.

Only in severe cases might there be waxy deposits on the skin (xanthomas), yellowish deposits of cholesterol around the eyes or eyelids, and small clusters of bumps on the hands, elbows, and knees. Most of these symptoms are associated with a genetic form of the disease known as familial hypercholesterolemia.

The only sure-fire way to find out if you have high cholesterol is through a lipid panel, which is a blood test that will look at the key lipids, or fats, that are in the blood, such as:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol)
  • High-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ("good" cholesterol)
  • Triglycerides
  • Total cholesterol

If your total cholesterol, LDL, or triglycerides are high (or your HDL is too low), your healthcare provider may recommend medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of interventions to help bring your lipids back to a healthy range.

Current guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that people over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol checked at once at least every four to six years.

However, if you have a family history of high cholesterol and have been diagnosed with a chronic condition such as diabetes, you may need to get your lipid checked more frequently.

In many cases, high cholesterol is found by accident during a routine checkup, and many people are surprised to be diagnosed with high cholesterol when they are otherwise feeling OK.

Risk Factors

Knowing your risk of developing high cholesterol is also important. Even though you generally do not know that you have high cholesterol, knowing your risk factors for having high cholesterol can help you to be aware that you may acquire this condition down the road.

Some risk factors for having high cholesterol are things that we can change, such as modifying our diet and getting more exercise. Others cannot be changed, such as gender, age, or genes.

If you have any of the conditions listed below, you are at risk of high cholesterol and should be checked if you have not already done so:

  • Lack of exercise
  • High-fat diet
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Older age
  • Family history of high cholesterol
  • Certain medications
  • Certain medical conditions (such as diabetes and certain thyroid conditions)


Some people are tempted to ignore their high cholesterol if they feel well. This is not a wise decision since persistently high levels could lead to a number of serious complications.

When cholesterol levels are high, fatty deposits can begin to form on inflamed vessels. This process referred to as atherosclerosis, can lead to the partial blockage of blood flow. The narrowing and hardening of the blood vessel not only causes a rise in blood pressure (hypertension) but also increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke if a fatty plaque breaks off and completely obstructs blood flow.

Sadly, many people do not know they have high cholesterol levels until they have had their first heart attack or stroke. To prevent this, have your cholesterol levels checked at least as often as the AHA suggests and take whatever measures needed to control your blood lipids.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease facts. Updated November 28, 2017.

  2. Harada-Shiba M, Arai H, Ishigaki Y, et al. Guidelines for diagnosis and treatment of familial hypercholesterolemia 2017. J Atheroscler Thromb. 2018;25(8):751-70. doi:10.5551/jat.CR003

  3. American Heart Association. Heart-health screenings. Updated March 22, 2019.