Phil Day By Superintendent Pharmacist Published:

Did you know that over half of all adults in the UK have raised cholesterol levels? Although the symptoms may not be immediately obvious, this relatively common issue can lead to other more serious and potentially life threatening conditions. This handy guide explains what high cholesterol is, how it’s treated and what you can do to help lower the risk of it developing.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood which is produced by your liver. The amount in the blood can also be affected by the food we eat and various lifestyle factors. We need cholesterol as it’s used to make hormones, helps build new tissues and is involved in the production of bile.

There are two types:

  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL) – also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol
  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) – also known as ‘good’ cholesterol

LDL can cause hardening of the arteries. HDL keeps the heart and circulation healthy, and even carries LDL back to the liver to be broken down.

Okay, so what’s high cholesterol?

When you have too much LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood, or too much total cholesterol (LDL and HDL combined), that’s when it’s referred to as high cholesterol. This happens when we’re eating too many fatty foods, not exercising enough, when we’re overweight, or as a result of smoking or drinking excess alcohol.

Even though it’s common, high cholesterol poses a serious risk to health. Too much LDL cholesterol can block your blood vessels and over time this could eventually lead to more serious conditions such as cardiovascular disease or stroke.

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

As there are no symptoms, the only way to find out if you have high cholesterol through a blood test.

A GP may request a blood test if they suspect you have high blood pressure. This could be because of your age, your weight, or if you have another medical condition which could be linked to high cholesterol such as diabetes or obesity.

The GP will also test for ‘triglycerides’ in the blood. They’re another type of fat that is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

And what can I do if I have high cholesterol?

The most effective way of treating cholesterol is by changing your diet and cutting down on foods containing saturated fats. You should make sure you’re exercising whilst considering stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol.

Your GP may also prescribe medication to help treat high cholesterol. This happens when changing your diet and lifestyle hasn’t led to a significant reduction in cholesterol, or if you’re at an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Medicines called ‘statins’ are the most commonly prescribed medication for high cholesterol. These include simvastatin, atorvastatin, rosuvastatin, pravastatin, and fluvastatin.

How do statins work?

Statins work to lower cholesterol levels in the blood by slowing down their production in the liver.

They’re usually taken once a day, and are most effective when you also make positive change to your lifestyle and diet.

Are any other medications prescribed for high cholesterol?

If statins don’t prove effective in the treatment of high cholesterol, a GP may prescribe something else, such as ezetimibe, or a medicine known as a fibrates. These work to reduce cholesterol in slightly different ways in the body, but with the same end goal.

The importance of taking cholesterol medication

It’s thought that up to half of all medicines prescribed for long-term conditions are not taken as intended.

It’s estimated that patients not taking their medicines costs the NHS £300 million a year and statins are an area of particular concern.

Typically, patients take statins for the rest of their lives, and as there are no visible symptoms of having high cholesterol, the risks of not taking them can seem less than the benefits they offer. Some decide to stop taking the tablets without telling their GP. But current evidence is clear that the long term cardiovascular benefits of taking statins are very significant. Even though you won’t feel the immediate benefit, they’re working in the background to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease in future years.

You will thank yourself in the future for taking them as prescribed today. However if you’re experiencing any problems or side effects with them, or have any concerns, talk about these with your pharmacist or doctor rather than stopping them without discussion.