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Which Cholesterol Tests Are Most Accurate?

There Are Many Types of Cholesterol Tests - Some Are More Accurate Than Others

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Updated October 04, 2008

(LifeWire) - While there are many ways to undergo cholesterol testing, you may wonder which cholesterol blood tests are the most accurate.

If you or a loved one has high cholesterol, the advertising slogans and bright packaging of home cholesterol tests may be quite tempting, but these tests are limited in the information they provide. Experts say home tests cannot replace regular cholesterol testing at your doctor’s office.

Types of Tests

There are two basic types of home cholesterol tests that can be purchased online or at your local pharmacy: The first type of test can be completed entirely within your home. These tests usually require a needle prick on the finger and the use of strips, which provide a reading within 10 to 20 minutes. The second type of test requires you to send blood samples to a laboratory.

The most important difference between these two types of tests, however, goes beyond the need for shipping. The FDA has only approved home cholesterol tests designed to evaluate total cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), frequently called the "good cholesterol." Typically, tests conducted in a laboratory or through your doctor’s office will provide more comprehensive results, often including low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglyceride levels. Both LDL and triglyceride levels are important when determining your overall cardiovascular risk and are two items many people want to lower.

Recommendations

Few organizations, including the American Heart Association, have taken a stance on at-home cholesterol testing except to say that the test should not be used in place of testing at your doctor’s office. It’s best to talk to your doctor about the benefits and pitfalls of home cholesterol testing before purchasing any home testing kits. If you do proceed without talking to your doctor, just keep in mind that at-home tests do not provide enough information to accurately assess your cardiovascular risk or decide whether or not treatment may be necessary. Regular cholesterol testing through your physician's office is necessary for both risk assessment and for treatment decisions.

Accuracy of Tests

Outside of research conducted by the companies themselves, there is little data regarding the accuracy of at-home cholesterol tests. According to a 2004 meta-analysis published in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, study authors wrote, "We can expect them [these at-home tests] to accurately classify 80 to 90% of patients” into the correct cardiovascular risk category. These categories can range from low to very high. It should also be noted that these at-home tests only screen for high elevations of total cholesterol levels.

The at-home tests should have accuracy data included in the packaging information. You can also search the FDA database to determine whether or not an over-the-counter test has been approved.

If you are using a test that requires a blood sample to be shipped to a laboratory, make sure the laboratory has been certified by the CDC's Cholesterol Reference Method Laboratory Network. If that information isn’t included in the product packaging information, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer. The CDC also maintains a list of certified laboratories.

Purchasing Tests

Tests will vary widely in terms of cost. Just make sure the test measures the cholesterol levels you are interested in, and search the database to make sure that the test is FDA-approved.

If you are purchasing a cholesterol test at a pharmacy, don’t hesitate to ask the pharmacist about the test. If you are buying a cholesterol test or any other medical product online, the FDA recommends taking a few precautionary measures:

  • Read the labels: If the label and other packaging information are written in multiple languages, the product is likely made outside the United States. This could mean the FDA has not approved the test. Look for U.S. addresses and phone numbers.
  • Talk to your doctor: Before spending money online, talk to a physician or another healthcare provider about the product.
  • Ask questions: If you have questions, call or e-mail the seller or manufacturer and ask if the FDA has approved the product.
Be sure to follow the at-home test directions closely, keeping in mind that slight deviations from the instructions could affect your results.

Sources:

"Buying Medical Devices Online." FDA.gov. 25 May 2001. Food and Drug Administration. 28 Aug. 2008 <http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/consumer/buyingmeddevonline.html>.

"Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online." FDA.gov. 2008. Food and Drug Administration. 28 Aug. 2008 <http://www.fda.gov/oc/buyonline/>.

"Cholesterol, Home Testing Devices." AmericanHeart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 28 Aug. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4501>.

"Cholesterol Reference Method Laboratory Network." CDC.gov. 11 Sep. 2007. Centers for Disease Control. 28 Aug. 2008 <http://www.cdc.gov/labstandards/crmln.htm>.

"Home-Use Tests -- Cholesterol." FDA.gov. 01 Feb. 2003. Food and Drug Administration. 28 Aug. 2008 <http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/oivd/homeuse-cholesterol.html>.

"Manufacturer Certification Program." CDC.gov. 11 Sep. 2007. Centers for Disease Control. 28 Aug. 2008 <http://www.cdc.gov/labstandards/crmln_manufacturers.htm>.

Taylor, J. and L. Lopez. "Cholesterol: Point of Care Testing." The Annals of Pharmacotherapy. 38(2004): 1252-7. <http://www.theannals.com/cgi/content/abstract/38/7/1252> (subscription).


LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Betsy Lee-Frye is an independent journalist living in Kansas City, Mo. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Corpus Christi Caller-Times and Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications.

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