How Accurate Are Home Cholesterol Tests?

You might be considering trying a home cholesterol test because of its convenience and affordability.

Keep in mind that these tests are limited in the information they provide. If you think that you may have high cholesterol, it is best not to depend solely on an at-home test. You need to get a fuller picture of your health from a qualified physician.

Learn more about home cholesterol tests and their role in managing your cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol home test

STEVE HORRELL / SPL / Getty Images

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of waxy fat (lipid). The cells in your body need cholesterol to help form vital tissue components, such as the myelin that protects nerves.

Cholesterol also helps produce vitamin D and hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Furthermore, cholesterol plays a role in producing bile acids that aid in the digestion process.

Cholesterol is necessary for your health, and different types of cholesterol affect the body in different ways. Too much of certain types can be dangerous for your health.

Types of Cholesterol

The main types of cholesterol are:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Often referred to as "good" cholesterol, HDL helps shuttle excess cholesterol to the liver so that the liver can remove it from the body.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): LDL is known as "bad" cholesterol. LDL can stick to the walls of your arteries and cause a buildup of plaque that can make arteries narrower, which could lead to blockages.
  • Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL): VLDL is another type of "bad" cholesterol that has similar potential plaque-building characteristics as LDL, but is different due to its ability to carry triglycerides, which are a common fat from the foods we eat.

High LDL and VLDL cholesterol levels are associated with conditions like atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Home Cholesterol Tests

How Do They Work?

Many home cholesterol tests can measure total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides from a blood sample. Some also measure LDL cholesterol. These tests can be purchased online or at your local pharmacy.

There are three basic types that work in different ways:

  • Test strips: These involve paper test strips that you read visually. You add a drop of blood from a finger prick and read the color change after several minutes.
  • Electronic meters: This type requires purchasing a small analyzer that is similar to a glucose meter. After placing a drop of blood on a test strip, the strip is inserted into the analyzer for a reading.
  • Mail-in tests: The third type of test requires sending a blood sample to a laboratory where health professionals do the analysis. You have to wait for them to contact you with your results.

If you decide to use a mail-in service, opt for labs that are part of the Cholesterol Reference Method Laboratory Network certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can also check online to see if the lab is on the CDC-certified list.

How Accurate Are They?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that at-home tests they have approved are about as accurate as the tests done by your doctor if you follow the instructions correctly. These tests have information about the test's accuracy printed on the product label.

However, note that for the majority of these devices, there is little published research about their accuracy.

The biggest challenge associated with home cholesterol testing is user error. This can lead to an inaccurate result.

Here are just a few of the things that can go wrong:

  • Instructions: Were any of the instructions confusing?
  • Fasting: Was fasting required and did you comply?
  • Blood sample: Did you get an adequate drop of blood on the strip?
  • Timing: Did you read it at the right time?
  • Storage: Was the test kit stored at the right temperature?
  • Expiration date: Was the kit within the expiration date?
  • Reading: Was there any confusion about the colors on the test strip?
  • Interpretation: Do you know what the results mean and whether you need to speak with your doctor?

This should not suggest that tests are excessively complicated. But you should know that one or two errors can lead to false results or misinterpretations.

If you get inconsistent results, see your doctor, who can check the values of your device or kit against an in-office (point-of-care) test.

Are They Regulated?

There are four at-home cholesterol tests currently approved by the FDA:

  • Accutech CholesTrak
  • CardioChek Cholesterol Analyzer
  • Home Access Cholesterol Panel Kit
  • Mission Cholesterol Test

Know that FDA-approved tests differ from FDA-cleared or FDA-registered tests. Tests in the latter group have not been evaluated for efficacy or safety based on their intended use. Rather, they are either substantially similar to an approved device (cleared) or are not subject to premarket review (registered).

If you bought a cholesterol test or any other medical product online, the FDA recommends taking a few precautions:

  • Read the label: If the label and other packaging information are written in multiple languages, the product is likely made outside the United States. This could mean the test is not FDA-registered, not authorized for sale, or potentially fraudulent.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider: If you are thinking about buying an at-home cholesterol test, speak with your doctor first about the benefits and limitations based on your medical history and current health.
  • Ask questions: If you have questions, call or e-mail the seller or manufacturer and ask if the FDA has approved the product.

When to See a Doctor

At-home tests cannot provide the information needed to assess your cardiovascular risk or decide when treatment is needed.

And although at-home cholesterol tests may let you know that you may have high cholesterol levels, the FDA states that home-use tests are best interpreted when they are evaluated alongside your medical history, a physical exam, and other tests performed during a doctor visit.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults 20 years or older should have their cholesterol checked by their doctor every four to six years. Those with heart disease, diabetes, or a family history of high cholesterol should see their doctor more frequently.

Talk with your doctor so that they can help assess your risk and advise you on how frequently you need to see them for testing.

Summary

Knowing your cholesterol levels helps you understand your risk for certain diseases, including heart disease and stroke. Although the standard method of checking your cholesterol is a visit to your doctor, at-home cholesterol tests can provide an alternate and convenient option.

If used correctly, at-home FDA-approved cholesterol tests are about as accurate as the testing done in a doctor's office. However, using a home cholesterol test should not replace seeing a doctor, as they do not provide the full picture of your health.

A Word from Verywell

At-home cholesterol tests can vary. Before purchasing one, check which lipid values are included in the test and whether the test is FDA-approved or, at the very least, FDA-cleared. It often helps to ask a pharmacist which test they recommend and why.

Also, be sure to follow a test's directions closely, keeping in mind that deviations from the instructions could affect results.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should you start getting your cholesterol checked?

    You should start getting your cholesterol checked during your adolescent years. Children should have their cholesterol tested at least once between the ages of nine and 11 and again when they are between the ages of 17 and 21.

  • How often should you have your cholesterol checked?

    The American Heart Association recommends that adults aged 20 or older should get their cholesterol checked every four to six years.

    Those with a family history of high cholesterol or other health conditions like diabetes or heart disease should get checked more frequently.

  • What are the warning signs of high cholesterol?

    There are typically no warning signs or symptoms of high cholesterol. If symptoms are present, they are usually from a condition caused by high cholesterol. For example, high cholesterol levels can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries.

    This buildup could lead to a blockage and a heart attack, with symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.

  • What are the dangers of leaving high cholesterol untreated?

    Leaving high cholesterol untreated could lead to life-threatening health conditions like a heart attack or stroke. It is important to regularly check your cholesterol levels to know if you need to lower them with lifestyle modifications and medication.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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