Cholesterol testing at home: It may be faster,
but is it better?
If you don’t mind pricking a finger, you can check your cholesterol
without sitting around in a doctor’s waiting room or laboratory.
Devices available in pharmacies or through the Internet make this easy
to do at home. But is it worth doing?
The makers of home cholesterol tests rightly tout their products as
faster than visiting a doctor. You prick your finger, gently squeeze
a few drops of blood onto a test strip or into a small “well,” and
you get the results in a few minutes, instead of waiting a few days.
But faster isn’t necessarily better. The results won’t give
you the information you need to figure out your risk of having a heart
attack or other cardiovascular problem. Nor will they help you check
whether a diet and exercise program is working.
Home testing kits approved by the Food and Drug Administration should
be as accurate as a laboratory. Under controlled conditions, they may
well be. But at home, without expert guidance, they often aren’t.
One problem is that people tend to squeeze or “milk” a finger
to get blood onto the test strip or into the well. This can throw off
Even when the reading is accurate, it may not be very useful. Kits such
as CholesTrak, Home Access Instant Cholesterol Test, or First Check Home
Cholesterol Test measure only total cholesterol. This is interesting
information. But it’s not enough to assess your cardiovascular
Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by a mix of particles.
The main ones are low-density lipoproteins (LDL, “bad” cholesterol)
and high-density lipoproteins (HDL, “good” cholesterol).
Triglycerides are another important fat-carrying particle. The levels
of these particles are what really matter.
Take two women with “normal” total cholesterol levels of
195 mg/dL. One, whose LDL is 155 (that’s high) and HDL is 25 (that’s
low), has an elevated risk for heart disease. Another, whose LDL is 105
and HDL is 75, has a much healthier profile.
Two in-home testing products can tell you your total cholesterol, HDL,
and triglyceride levels (Cardio Check and Lifestream Personal Cholesterol
Monitor). Unfortunately, it takes three separate jabs with a sharp lancet
to do this, the tests don’t measure LDL, and they cost more than
Leave it to the lab
Some home tests make perfect sense. Checking your blood pressure or
blood sugar at home can give you an early warning that trouble’s
brewing. If you take a blood-thinning drug such as warfarin (Coumadin),
a kit that measures clotting time can alert you to the need to adjust
Home cholesterol tests, in contrast, don’t offer any real advantages.
They don’t provide accurate information about your cardiovascular
risk. Nor do they tell you much about the impact of diet or exercise
on your cholesterol.
Some home tests can also be very tricky to understand. They report cholesterol
levels in terms of the current national guidelines. The targets and cut-offs
in these guidelines vary, depending on other health conditions, and you
may need a doctor to help you figure out which standards apply to you.
In general, you’re better off not checking your cholesterol at
home. Let a lab give you the detailed information you need.
April 2003 Update
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