High Cholesterol: Separating Myth and Fact

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If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may recommend changes to your diet, exercise regimen and other lifestyle-related factors.
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High cholesterol means that the level of bad fats in your blood is too high. Though typically the result of a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors, such as a bad diet, it can also be caused by certain medical conditions and medications, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

If you've been diagnosed with high cholesterol and have been experiencing strange new symptoms, you may be wondering if they are side effects of your high cholesterol. For instance, can high cholesterol cause headaches and dizziness.

Read more: What Is a Dangerous Cholesterol Level?

The Lowdown on High Cholesterol

There are a number of potential causes of high cholesterol. A brief spike in cholesterol can be caused by dietary changes, weight gain, lack of exercise, manifestation of LDL receptor dysfunction or onset of other diseases, says Guy L. Mintz, MD, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, New York.

Other behaviors that can cause your cholesterol to spike include smoking, exposure to tobacco smoke and excess weight, according to the American Heart Association. A family history of high cholesterol can also be the culprit, but non-heart-healthy behaviors are usually to blame.

Contrary to popular belief, however, high cholesterol does not cause headaches or dizziness, says Dr. Mintz. In fact, high cholesterol does not cause any specific symptoms, according to the NIH.

That said, people with extremely high cholesterol can show certain signs, such as xanthoma (development of fatty growths beneath the skin) and corneal arcus (deposits around the outside of the cornea that look like a ring around the iris, or colored portion of the eye).

Side Effects of High Cholesterol

When a person has high cholesterol, the cholesterol can accumulate in various vascular beds, Dr. Mintz explains. As plaque from the cholesterol grows in the lining of an affected artery, a rough area forms. This condition, called atherosclerosis, can lead to the formation of a blood clot that can completely block the flow of blood within the artery, starving organs of blood and oxygen, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Potential complications stemming from this reduced blood flow, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:

  • Chest pain. If the arteries that deliver blood to the heart develop atherosclerosis, you may experience chest pain (angina) or other symptoms of coronary artery disease.
  • Heart attack. In the event that a plaque tears, a blood clot may form and either block blood flow at the tear site or travel down the artery and cause a blockage elsewhere. Heart attacks are caused by such blockages, as they interrupt blood flow to part of the heart.
  • Stroke. A stroke may occur for similar reasons: If a blood clot blocks the flow of blood to part of the brain, the result may be a stroke.

Treating High Cholesterol

A spike in cholesterol is not necessarily cause for great concern. However, if your blood tests consistently come back with high cholesterol levels, your doctor may diagnose you with high cholesterol and recommend that you make changes to your diet, exercise regimen and other lifestyle-related factors, says NIH. In addition, your doctor may prescribe medication to lower your blood cholesterol and keep it in check.

"Proper diet can be an effective tool, but because cholesterol buildup is multifactorial, diet alone may not be effective to achieve cholesterol goals," Dr. Mintz explains.

"Patients should engage with their physician in a conversation regarding their individualized cardiovascular risk," he says. "Based on that risk score, recommendations beyond diet and lifestyle changes, including medical therapy, for some should take place. It will take a combination of proper diet, exercise and medications for some to lower their cholesterol and in doing so lower their cardiovascular risk."

As Dr. Mintz says, "Lowering cholesterol is just one part of the formula to reduce cardiovascular events."

Read more: The 3 Major Causes of High Cholesterol Levels Are All Preventable

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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