Your body needs cholesterol to work properly. But cholesterol levels that are too high can be life threatening.
When you have extra cholesterol in your blood, it builds up inside the walls of your heart’s arteries (blood vessels). This buildup is called plaque. It narrows your arteries and reduces, or even stops, the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack, stroke, or other serious heart disease.
Total cholesterol is the amount of all of the fats in your blood. These fats are called lipids. Several different types make up your total cholesterol.
High cholesterol, especially "bad" cholesterol (LDL), can clog your arteries. This may reduce blood flow to your heart. It can lead to heart disease, stroke, or heart attack. Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
If you have heart disease or diabetes, your LDL cholesterol should stay below 100 mg/dL.
If you are at risk for heart disease, your LDL cholesterol should be lower than 130 mg/dL.
Almost everyone else may get health benefits from LDL cholesterol that is lower than 160 - 190 mg/dL.
Your HDL cholesterol is called "good" cholesterol. You want your HDL cholesterol to be high.
For men, it should be above 40 mg/dL. For women, it should be above 50 mg/dL. Exercise helps raise your HDL cholesterol.
Your doctor may want you to take medicine for your cholesterol. This will depend on your age. Other factors are whether or not you smoke, are overweight, have high blood pressure, or have diabetes.
Once you start taking this medicine, you will probably take it for the rest of your life. Sometimes, changing your lifestyle and losing a lot of weight (and keep it off) can make you no longer need this medicine. But you will always need to remember that you have a cholesterol problem.
Taking Your Cholesterol Medicine
Some cholesterol medicines work best when you take them at bedtime. For others, the time of day doesn’t matter. You should take some of these medicines with food. You should take your medicine at the same time every day. This makes it easier to remember to take it. It also makes you less likely to confuse different pills you may be taking.
Remember to take your medicine as directed. Some helpful aids are using a special pill box labeled with the time of day. You can also set alarms or put a reminder note in a place you are sure to see it. Keep in mind that being "on a pill" doesn’t mean anything if you forget to take it.
Make sure you tell your doctor about all other medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins and herbal treatments. They may change the way your cholesterol drug works. Ask your doctor if you should avoid any foods or drinks.
Understand the side effects of your medicine. If you have any side effects, call your doctor.
Ask your doctor what you should do if you miss a dose of medicine. Keep all appointments with your doctor. Regular blood tests will tell your doctor how the drug is working. Plan ahead for refills and travel so that you do not run out.
Keep these and all other medicines stored in a cool, dry place where children cannot get to them.
Medicines for Cholesterol
There are several kinds of drugs to help lower blood cholesterol levels. They work in different ways. Some help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Some help lower triglycerides. Others help raise HDL (good) cholesterol.
Your doctor will prescribe the best medicine for you. Sometimes you may need to take more than one cholesterol-lowering drug.
Statins are one kind of drug that lowers cholesterol.
Resins are another kind of drug that lowers cholesterol.
Fibrates are a third kind of drug that lowers cholesterol.
Ask Your Doctor
When your doctor prescribes medicine to lower your cholesterol, ask:
How much should I take?
How often should I take it?
What time of day should I take it?
How should I take it? (With food, with water?)
What other drugs cannot be taken at the same time?
What are the possible side effects?
How often should I get my blood retested?
Should I also be taking aspirin?
Should I be taking any special vitamins or using fish oil or other over-the-counter remedies?
Should I avoid certain foods when I am taking this medicine?
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor if you:
Have muscle or tendon aches or weakness
Have stomach pain, cramps, or gas
Feel sick to your stomach, or you are vomiting
Feel more tired than usual
Have flush (your skin is warm and turning red)
Are unable to sleep
American Heart Association. Drug therapy for cholesterol. 2011 Jan 20. Accessed February 21, 2011.
Gaziano M, Manson JE, Ridker PM. Primary and secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. In: Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Braunwald E, Zipes DP, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 8th ed. Saunders; 2007;chap 45.
A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, and David R. Eltz. Previously reviewed by David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine (2/23/2011).