Cholesterol and triglycerides

HeartsCholesterol and triglycerides are two types of fats (lipids) that are carried (and can be measured) in blood.

These fats perform essential functions, including making effective cell structures and processing vitamins A, D, E and K.

Cholesterol and trigylcerides are often referred to as ‘lipids’.

In the general population, high lipid levels are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Even if high lipids are a side effect of treatment for just a few years, recommendations are similar to HIV negative people.

HIV and lipids

HIV itself (before treatment) reduces both good and bad cholesterol and triglycerides are higher. Starting treatment with any combination will reverse these lipid effects as part of a return-to-health effect.

Because many HIV drugs and lifestyle factors affect lipids this is complex to interpet.

Testing and monitoring

Cholesterol and triglycerides should be checked when you are first diagnosed. They should also be checked before starting or changing treatment and then three months after any change.

Routine monitoring for someone on stable treatment should then involve testing lipids every 6–12 months.

Most clinics will do this at the same time as your CD4 and viral load, but you might need to ask whether this is being done. These tests are best done fasted (on an empty stomach) so don’t eat or drink anything before your have your blood taken on those days.

Management of lipid levels should be part of an assessment of your risk for heart disease. This is also related to other risk factors, including lifestyle factors.

Lipids are first managed by diet and exercise, then by switching HIV treatment and then by using lipid lowering drugs.


Total cholesterol (TC) is measured first. If these results are high then a further test will break this down into two different types of cholesterol:

  1. High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is ‘good’ cholesterol. It removes fats from your arteries.
  2. Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) is ‘bad’ cholesterol. It is a small molecule that carries fats from the liver to other parts of your body and can lead to heart disease.

Target levels for total and LDL cholesterol and desirable levels for HDL cholesterol and triglycerides are shown in Table 5. Target levels are lower for people who already have high cardiovascular risk due to other factors. Each reduction in LDL by 1.0 reduces the risk of cardiovascular mortality by 20%.

The TC:HDL ratio is used to determine the importance of using lipid lowering drugs, but is not used for monitoring afterwards.

Table 5: Target/desirable levels for fasted lipids (EACS guidelines)

Total cholesterol (TC) Less than 5.0 mmol/L (under 4.0 if high risk)
LDL cholesterol Less than  3.0 mmol/L (under 2.0 if high risk)
HDL cholesterol Higher than 0.9 mmol/L
Triglycerides Less than 1.7 mmol/

Table 6: Factors that can affect cholesterol and triglycerides (TG)

HIV TC is lower and TG is higher before HIV treatment
HIV treatment Some drugs affect cholesterol (LDL and HDL) and TG
Ageing Ageing can increase cholesterol and TG
Smoking Smoking increases LDL. Quitting increases HDL and reduces TG
Diet Diet affects blood lipids
Exercise Exercise has a good impact on lipids
Other infections Other health conditions can affect lipids.

Key: TC = total cholesterol; TG = triglycerides; HDL = high density lipoprotein (“good cholesterol”); LDL = low density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”); TC:HDL ratio is often more important than individual levels, with a target of 4.5 or less. Note: HDL are large particles that can pick up LDL to be broken down and eliminated from your body. LDL are small particles that have a higher risk of getting stuck and causing a blockage.


Some guidelines see triglycerides (TG) as an independent risk factor for heart disease. Others state that the evidence for treating moderate triglycerides is less strong.

In the D:A:D study, most of the impact of high triglycerides was explained by other risk factors, but this still remained at +10% per year.

Although there is a lot of individual variability, target fasted levels of under 2.2 mmol/L are considered normal and of 2.2–4.4 mmol/L are borderline. Above this, the risk of heart disease increases.

Levels above 10 mmol/L are very high and need urgent treatment due to the increased the risk of pancreatitis.

Although less that 1.7 mmol/L is a target, treatment would not usually be used unless levels are over 2.3 mmol/L.

Changing HIV drugs in your combination

Lipids generally improve after switching away from HIV drugs that have caused this change.

This usually involves switching from a protease inhibitor (PI) to nevirapine, raltegravir or to another PI that affects lipids less (atazanavir/r or darunavir/r). Tenofovir has a slighter better lipid impact compared to abacavir.

Nevirapine might help by increasing HDL (good cholesterol). The boosting dose of ritonavir to some extent reduces the benefits of protease inhibitors with better lipids profiles.

The debate on the impact of different strategies on reducing risk for heart disease is likely to develop and change over the next few years.

The choice of switch drugs will depend on your previous treatment history and previous history of resistance.

Treatment and management

Options to improve lipids include lifestyle changes (diet etc), switching HIV meds and using lipid lowering drugs.

Cholesterol and triglyceride levels can often be improved by diet changes (especially reducing saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and alcohol and increasing fibre) and by starting or increasing exercise.

Weight loss, if you are overweight, will have a positive impact on lipids too.

Omega-3 can reduce triglyceride levels. Taking a supplement might be more effective that just changing diet. For example, a 4 gram (g) daily dose Omacor, (90% omega-3 acid ethyl esters) is equivalent to 150 g mackerel or 700 g tuna or 1.1 kg cod or 280 g salmon or 1.7 kg eel or 850 g shrimps.

Lifestyle targets for the general population for people at risk of heart disease or diabetes are listed in Table 7.

Table 7: Lifestyle targets to reduce risk of heart disease (from from the UK guidelines)

1 Do not smoke.
2 Maintain ideal body weight for adults (body mass index 20– 25 kg/m2) and avoid central obesity (waist circumference in white caucasians less than 102 cm in men and less than 88 cm in women (for Asian/Oriental people this is less than 90 cm in men and less than 80 cm in women).
3 Keep total dietary intake of fat to (30% of total energy intake).
4 Keep the intake of saturated fats to (10% of total fat intake).
5 Keep the intake of dietary cholesterol to less than 300 mg/day.
6 Replace saturated fats by an increased intake of monounsaturated fats.
7 Increase the intake of fresh fruit and vegetables to at least five portions per day.
8 Regular intake of fish and other sources of omega 3 fatty acids (at least two servings of fish per week).
9 Limit alcohol intake to less than 21 units/week for men or less than 14 units/ week for women.
10 Limit the intake of salt to less than 100 mmol/l day (less than 6 g of sodium chloride or less than 2.4 g of sodium per day).
11 Regular aerobic physical activity of at least 30 mins per day, most days of the week, should be taken (for example, fast walking/ swimming).

Source: JSB2 guidelines, 2003,

Lipids generally improve after switching away from HIV drugs that cause this side effect.

If diet, supplements, exercise and switching treatment (if appropriate) are not enough, then lipid-lowering drugs are generally more effective. They are widely used and have a low risk of side effects. Fibrates are used too reduce triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol and statins reduce LDL cholesterol.

Lipid-lowering drugs need to be prescribed by an HIV specialist as they can interact with PIs and NNRTIs. For example some statins should never be used and some require increased or decreased dosing.

  • Simvastatin should never be used.
  • Atorvastatin and rosuvastatin need to start with a low dose.
  • Pravastatin and fluvastatin might need a higher dose.

Studies are also looking at metformin (an insulin sensitising drug), rosiglitazone and growth hormone.

A study of HIV positive men looking at the effects of exercise and testosterone found that testosterone significantly reduced levels of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL). This is a concern for people with lipodystrophy who already have elevated triglycerides and ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL).

Although muscle gain and fat loss were greater in the testosterone group, levels of good cholesterol increased in people who used exercise without testosterone, and this might be more appropriate for people with lipodystrophy.

Although anabolic steroids can increase muscle mass they can also reduce fat, and have the potential to worsen lipoatrophy and lipid levels.

Further information
European AIDS Clinical Society (EACS) metabolic guidelines

ESC/EAS Guidelines for the management of dyslipidaemias (Eur Heart Jour, 2011)

Last updated: 1 March 2023.