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What Is a Total Cholesterol Level?

A Total Cholesterol Level Measures Total Fats in the Blood, Heart Disease Risk


Updated May 28, 2014

No matter which type of a cholesterol test you take –- whether it is in a healthcare provider’s office, a home test, or at a health fair –- you will almost always get a total cholesterol reading. A total cholesterol reading represents the total amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood at the time of the test.

The following components are included in a total cholesterol reading:

  • LDL (“bad” cholesterol)
  • HDL (“good” cholesterol)
  • VLDL

What Should My Total Cholesterol Levels Be?

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, your total cholesterol level should be lower than 200 mg/dL. Total cholesterol levels between 200 and 239 mg/dL are considered borderline for high cholesterol. In this case, your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes to lower it -- especially if it is discovered that your LDL and/or triglycerides are also high.

If your total cholesterol level is 240 mg/dL or above, your total cholesterol level is considered to be too high. In this circumstance, your healthcare provider would also examine the individual components that make up of your total cholesterol level – such as LDL, HDL, and VLDL. Based upon this, your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes and/or medications to lower it.

What Does a Total Cholesterol Reading Tell You?

A total cholesterol reading can be used to assess your risk for heart disease, however, it should not be relied upon as the only indicator. The individual components that make up your total cholesterol reading –- LDL, HDL, and VLDL –- are also important in measuring your risk.

For instance, your total cholesterol may be high, but this may be due to your good (HDL) cholesterol levels being too high –- which can actually help prevent heart disease. So, while a high total cholesterol level may help give you an indication that that there is a problem with your cholesterol, the components that make up your total cholesterol should also be measured.


Dipiro JT, Talbert RL. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiological Approach, 6th ed 2005.

Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (PDF), July 2004, The National Institutes of Heath: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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