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Cholesterol management health centre

Symptoms of high cholesterol

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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High cholesterol is not a disease but increases your risk of serious conditions such as:

  • coronary heart disease, caused by atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries),
  • stroke, and
  • mini-stroke (transient ischaemic attack or TIA).

You may only discover you have high cholesterol if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis (see below).

Coronary heart disease

A high level of cholesterol in your blood, together with a high level of triglycerides, can increase your risk of developing coronary heart disease.

Coronary heart disease is caused by narrowing of the arteries that supply the heart with blood. This narrowing is called atherosclerosis.

Cholesterol and other substances build up in the inner lining of an artery. This build-up, known as plaque, usually affects small- and medium-sized arteries. The flow of blood through the arteries is restricted as the space inside the artery is reduced.

Blood clots, which often happen in the coronary arteries (leading to the heart) during a heart attack, are more likely to develop when artery walls become rough due to the build-up of fatty deposits.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis can include:

  • Angina (pain in the chest or neighbouring parts of the body), caused by narrowed arteries going to the heart.
  • Leg pain when exercising, caused by narrowed arteries going to the lower limbs.
  • Blood clots and ruptured blood vessels, which can result in a stroke or mini-stroke (see below).
  • Ruptured plaques, which can lead to a blood clot forming in one of the arteries delivering blood to the heart (coronary thrombosis). If a significant amount of heart muscle is damaged, this may lead to heart attack, heart failure and death.
  • Cholesterol deposits around the eyes, in the skin or in the tendons. Yellowish deposits can form in the skin of the eyelids and white rings can form around the edge of the iris. In rare cases, hard white deposits of cholesterol form in the tendons, particularly around the knuckles or in the Achilles tendons (the back of the heel). These deposits may be seen in people with inherited high cholesterol (familial hypercholesterolaemia).

For more information, see Health A-Z: symptoms of atherosclerosis.

Stroke and mini-stroke

A stroke or mini-stroke, also called a TIA, occurs when the blood supply to your brain is disturbed. In the case of TIA, this goes back to normal within 24 hours.

Symptoms vary from person to person, but may include your face falling on one side, arm weakness or slurred speech. The symptoms of a mini-stroke usually get better very quickly.

For more information, see Health A-Z: symptoms of stroke.

Medical Review: October 19, 2009

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