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For further information, see CMDT Part 28-01: Lipid Abnormalities

Key Features

Essentials of Diagnosis

  • Elevated serum total cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, low serum high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or elevated serum triglycerides

  • Usually asymptomatic

  • In severe cases associated with metabolic abnormalities, superficial lipid deposition occurs

General Considerations

  • Cholesterol and triglycerides are the two main circulating lipids

  • Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with increased risk of atherosclerotic heart disease

  • High levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with lower risk of atherosclerotic heart disease

  • Non-HDL cholesterol

    • Increasingly recognized as an important measure of the total quantity of apolipoprotein B–containing atherogenic lipid particles

    • Calculated as Total cholesterol – HDL cholesterol

    • Advantages of non-HDL cholesterol

      • Less sensitive to fasting status

      • Better predictor of cardiovascular risk compared to LDL cholesterol

  • Lipoprotein(a)

    • A subfraction of LDL that is largely genetically determined

    • Has been recognized as a casual factor for atherosclerosis

    • May be useful to measure in patients with a strong family history or with early signs of early atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD)

  • Assigning a "normal" range for serum lipids can be difficult because mean values vary across the world

    • In Western populations, cholesterol values are about 20% higher than in Asian populations and exceed 300 mg/dL (7.76 mmol/L) in nearly 5% of adults

    • About 10% of adults have LDL cholesterol levels > 200 mg/dL (5.17 mmol/L)

  • Familial hypercholesterolemia

    • Genetic disorder

    • Rare in the homozygous state

    • Causes markedly high LDL levels and early cardiovascular disease (CVD)


  • More common in men than women before age 50

  • More common in women than men after age 50

  • More common in Whites and Hispanics than among Blacks

Clinical Findings

Symptoms and Signs

  • No specific symptoms or signs

  • Eruptive xanthomas

    • Characterized by red-yellow papules, especially on the buttocks

    • Caused by extremely high levels of chylomicrons or VLDL particles (triglyceride level > 1000 mg/dL or 10 mmol/L)

  • Tendinous xanthomas

    • Caused by high LDL concentrations

    • Occur in certain tendinous areas (Achilles, patella, back of the hand)

    • Usually indicate one of the underlying genetic hyperlipidemias

  • Lipemia retinalis

    • Characterized by cream-colored blood vessels in the fundus

    • Caused by extremely high triglyceride levels (> 2000 mg/dL or 20 mmol/L)

Differential Diagnosis

eTable 28–1.Secondary causes of lipid abnormalities.

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