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High cholesterol

Last reviewed dd mmm yyyy. Last edited dd mmm yyyy

Authoring team

These are conditions in which there is a raised level of lipids in the blood.

An increase in chylomicrons or very low density lipoproteins leads to an increase in triglyceride.

An increase in low density lipoproteins or intermediate density lipoproteins leads to an increase in cholesterol.

Identifying and assessing cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk

  • use the QRISK2 risk assessment tool to assess CVD risk for the primary prevention of CVD in people up to and including age 84 years
  • do not use a risk assessment tool to assess CVD risk in people with an estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) less than 60 ml/min/1.73 m2 and/or albuminuria. These people are at increased risk of CVD
  • do not use a risk assessment tool to assess CVD risk in people with type 1 diabetes
  • use the QRISK2 risk assessment tool to assess CVD risk in people with type 2 diabetes
  • do not use a risk assessment tool for people with pre-existing CVD
  • do not use a risk assessment tool for people who are at high risk of developing CVD because of familial hypercholesterolaemia or other inherited disorders of lipid metabolism
  • recognise that standard CVD risk scores will underestimate risk in people who have additional risk because of underlying medical conditions or treatments. These groups include:
    • people treated for HIV
    • people with serious mental health problems
    • people taking medicines that can cause dyslipidaemia such as antipsychotic medication, corticosteroids or immunosuppressant drugs
    • people with autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus, and other systemic inflammatory disorders
  • recognise that CVD risk will be underestimated in people who are already taking antihypertensive or lipid modification therapy, or who have recently stopped smoking. Use clinical judgement to decide on further treatment of risk factors in people who are below the CVD risk threshold for treatment
  • severe obesity (body mass index greater than 40 kg/m2) increases CVD risk. Take this into account when using risk scores to inform treatment decisions in this group
  • consider people aged 85 or older to be at increased risk of CVD because of age alone, particularly people who smoke or have raised blood pressure

Lipid modification therapy for the primary and secondary prevention of CVD (1)

  • before starting lipid modification therapy for the primary prevention of CVD, take at least 1 lipid sample to measure a full lipid profile
    • should include measurement of total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, non-HDL cholesterol, and triglyceride concentrations (fasting sample is not required)
  • atorvastatin 20 mg should be offered for the primary prevention of CVD to people who have a 10% or greater 10-year risk of developing CVD. Estimate the level of risk using the QRISK2 assessment tool
  • if a person has CVD then start statin treatment in people with CVD with atorvastatin 80 mg . A lower dose of atorvastatin if any of the following apply:
    • potential drug interactions
    • high risk of adverse effects
    • patient preference

Target cholesterol level (1)

  • measure total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol in all people who have been started on high-intensity statin treatment at 3 months of treatment and aim for a greater than 40% reduction in non-HDL cholesterol. If a greater than 40% reduction in non-HDL cholesterol is not achieved:
    • discuss adherence and timing of dose
    • optimise adherence to diet and lifestyle measures
    • consider increasing dose if started on less than atorvastatin 80 mg and the person is judged to be at higher risk because of comorbidities, risk score or using clinical judgement

Targets from European guidance (2):

The European guideline considers patients in terms of different levels of risk and targets reflect the different level of risk. The guidance states that ' general, total plasma cholesterol should be <5 mmol/L (<190 mg/dL), and LDL cholesterol should be <3 mmol/L (<115 mg/dL). In subjects with higher CVD risk, the treatment goals should be lower

Level of Risk

Factors putting in this risk category

Lipid lowering target

Very high risk

Subjects with any of the following:

  • documented CVD by invasive or non-invasive testing (such as coronary angiography, nuclear imaging, stress echocardiography, carotid plaque on ultrasound), previous myocardial infarction, ACS, coronary revascularization (PCI, CABG), and other arterial revascularization procedures, ischaemic stroke, peripheral artery disease (PAD)
  • diabetes mellitus (type 1 or type 2) with one or more CV risk factors and/or target organ damage (such as microalbuminuria: 30-300 mg/24 h)
  • severe chronic kidney disease (CKD) (GFR <30 mL/min/ 1.73 m2).
  • a calculated SCORE .>= 10% (of fatal CVD event in next 10 years)

LDL cholesterol goal is <1.8 mmol/L (less than 70 mg/dL) or a >=50% LDL cholesterol reduction when the target level cannot be reached.

High risk

Subjects with any of the following:

  • markedly elevated single risk factors such as familial dyslipidaemias and severe hypertension
  • diabetes mellitus (type 1 or type 2) but without CV risk factors or target organ damage
  • moderate chronic kidney disease (GFR 30-59 mL/min/1.73 m2).
  • calculated SCORE of >= 5% and ,10% for 10-year risk of fatal CVD.

LDL cholesterol goal ,2.5 mmol/L (less than 100 mg/dL) should be considered

Moderate risk

Subjects are considered to be at moderate risk when their SCORE is >1 and <5% at 10 years. Many middle-aged subjects belong to this category. Risk may also be higher than indicated in the charts*

LDL cholesterol goal <3.0 mmol/L (less than 115 mg/dL) should be considered

Low Risk

The low-risk category applies to individuals with a SCORE <1% and free of qualifiers that would put them at moderate risk.

no target

SCORE risk chart used in this guideline are not equivalent to QRISK2 as SCORE risk is based on the risk of a FATAL CVD event in the next 10 years. For more information about the SCORE charts then click here

*Risk may also be higher than indicated in the charts in:

  • sedentary subjects and those with central obesity; these characteristics determine many of the other aspects of risk listed below. The increased risk associated with overweight is greater in younger subjects than in older subjects
  • socially deprived individuals and those from ethnic minorities.
  • individuals with diabetes: SCORE charts should be used only in those with type 1 diabetes without target organ damage. Risk rises with increasing blood sugar concentration before overt diabetes occurs
  • individuals with low HDL cholesterol, increased triglycerides, fibrinogen, apolipoprotein B (apoB), and lipoprotein(a) [Lp(a)] levels, especially in combination with familial hypercholesterolaemia, and perhaps increased high-sensitivity CRP (hsCRP). In particular, a low HDL level will indicate a higher level of risk in both sexes, all age groups, and at all levels of ris
  • asymptomatic individuals with preclinical evidence of atherosclerosis, for example plaque on carotid ultrasonography
  • those with moderate to severe chronic kidney disease [glomerular filtration rate (GFR) <60 mL/min/1.73 m2]
  • positive family history of premature CVD.

HDL and triglycerides (2)

  • although low HDL cholesterol is an independent risk factor for CVD, no specific treatment goals are as yet defined, but may be considered at concentrations >1.0 mmol/L (40 mg/dL) in men and >1.2 mmol/L 45 mg/dL) in women. Similarly, fasting triglycerides should be <.1.7 mmol/L (150 mg/dL).


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The content herein is provided for informational purposes and does not replace the need to apply professional clinical judgement when diagnosing or treating any medical condition. A licensed medical practitioner should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions.


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