Understanding your cholesterol test results

Use this page to understand your cholesterol and triglyceride results and see if they are in the healthy range.

What do your cholesterol  results mean?

When you have a cholesterol test, it is really important that your healthcare professional explains the results to you to prevent unnecessary worry and confusion. 

It’s not just your total cholesterol that’s important and your results will include different types of cholesterol. If you are only given your total cholesterol, ask for a break-down of the other numbers. It’s possible to have a healthy total cholesterol (TC) number but an unhealthy balance of the different types of cholesterol. 

As a minimum, you should be given your total cholesterol (TC) and HDL (good cholesterol) numbers, then you can work out your ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol (written as the TC:HDL ratio). 

You might also have your triglycerides tested, these are another type of blood fat which are linked to heart disease. 

Ask for a print out of your results if you are not able to speak to your GP, nurse or pharmacist. 

Your results should include: 

  • Total cholesterol

This is sometimes written as 'serum cholesterol' or 'TC' and refers to your overall level of cholesterol. 

  • Non-HDL cholesterol

Your non-HDL cholesterol is your total cholesterol minus your HDL cholesterol. It’s all the 'bad' cholesterol added together, including your LDL cholesterol. Ideally it should be as low as possible.

  • HDL cholesterol

Your HDL cholesterol ('good' cholesterol) helps clear the cholesterol out of your arteries, while your LDL cholesterol ('bad' cholesterol) can clog them up. Your HDL cholesterol should ideally be high, around 1.4mmol/L, but our specialists believe that HDL levels higher than this might not give you any extra benefit. Read about high HDL cholesterol. 

  • TC:HDL ratio

You might be given a TC:HDL ratio, which is the ratio of HDL compared to the total cholesterol. If not, you can work it out from your HDL and total cholesterol numbers. This should be as low as possible. Above 6 is considered high.

What is a healthy cholesterol level?

This table is a general guide for ideal cholesterol and triglyceride levels for healthy adults in the UK. If you have a condition such as heart disease or diabetes, your target levels may be lower – your doctor will be able to tell you your individual targets.

  mmol/L mg/dL
Total (serum) cholesterol below 5.0 below 193
Non-HDL cholesterol below 4.0 below 155
LDL cholesterol below 3.0 below 116

HDL cholesterol

 

above 1.0 for a man

above 1.2 for a woman

(ideally around 1.4, but higher levels might not give extra protection)

above 39 for a man

above 46 for a woman

TC:HDL ratio Above 6 is considered high risk - the lower this figure is the better Above 6 is considered high risk - the lower this figure is the better

 

What do your triglyceride results  mean? 

Triglycerides are another type of blood fat and your triglyceride levels can tell you more about your health. If your triglycerides are high, it can mean you’re at risk of heart disease, liver disease and diabetes. 

You might have your triglycerides tested when you have a cholesterol test. 

People with high triglyceride levels often have a low HDL level as well, which is an unhealthy combination.

What is a healthy triglyceride level?

As a general rule, these are the ideal triglyceride levels for healthy adults. Fasting triglycerides are where you fast for a period of time before your blood test, usually 10-14 hours: 

Fasting triglyceride below 1.7mmol/L below 150mg/dL
Non-fasting triglyceride below 2.3mmol/L below 204mg/dL

What can raise your triglycerides?

 

 

Converting from mmol/l to mg/dl

In the UK, cholesterol levels are measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/l). If you have your cholesterol tested in Europe or USA, they will be measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). Here’s how to convert from one to the other:

To convert cholesterol levels:
Cholesterol mg/dl = mmol/l x 38.6
Cholesterol mmol/l = mg/dl ÷ 38.6

To convert triglyceride levels:
Triglyceride mg/dl = mmol/l x 88.5
Triglyceride mmol/l = mg/dl ÷ 88.5

Do you need to lower your cholesterol and triglycerides? 

If you have high cholesterol, high triglycerides or an unhealthy balance of blood fats, your doctor will probably recommend bringing these levels down with lifestyle changes and sometimes treatments

Your doctor should look at your results in relation to any other risk factors for heart disease you may have such as high blood pressure, being overweight or smoking, as well as other health conditions such as diabetes.

Find out your heart age with the Heart Age Tool

 

Once you have your cholesterol results you can work out your risk of developing heart disease over the next 10 years using the NHS Heart Age Tool. You will get a more accurate result if you know your blood pressure numbers too. The heart age tool is designed for people aged 25 to 84. 

Adults age 40-74 are also invited for NHS Health Checks which includes other simple tests to look at your heart health.

Cholesterol levels for men and women

HDL levels differ for men and women

Women naturally have higher HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) levels than men due to differences in the genes. Women should aim for an HDL cholesterol level above 1.2mmol/L while men should aim for above 1mmol/L.

Cholesterol levels can rise during pregnancy

During pregnancy, both cholesterol and triglyceride levels can significantly rise. We don't recommend getting a cholesterol test during pregnancy because your results won't be accurate. Our advice is to wait until at least 6-8 weeks after your baby is born or after you stop breastfeeding to get a cholesterol test. This means you don't need to worry unnecessarily. Find out more about pregnancy and blood fats. 

Cholesterol levels rise during the menopause

Women may also find their cholesterol levels rise during the menopause.