The term cholesterol often gets a blanket bad rap. But it’s not quite so simple.

Cholesterol is present in all the body’s cells. In order to make hormones and correctly produce cells, the body actually requires a certain amount of this waxy substance found within fats (lipids) in the blood. But when cholesterol levels elevate to an unhealthy degree, you can enter into a danger zone where your risk of developing heart disease increases.

Whooshing through the bloodstream, cholesterol travels in tiny pockets called lipoproteins. The patches’ interiors are made of fat (lipid), and exteriors, of protein.

Two different lipoproteins zoom cholesterol around the body. The first type of lipoproteins are called low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The second type are called high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

HDL is so-called good cholesterol. It collects cholesterol from all over the body and shuttles it back to the liver which can get rid of it. In this way, HDL helps to keep the arteries (blood-carrying vessels) from getting choked with cholesterol buildup. As a general rule: The higher your HDL (good) cholesterol, the lower your risk of heart disease.

LDL is so-called bad cholesterol. That’s because it can stick to and accumulate on the interior walls of the arteries. Over a period of time, this plaque (made up of calcium, cholesterol, fat, and other blood substances) wreaks havoc on your arteries. A plaque pocket can break open, leading to the formation of a blood clot on the plaque’s surface. As the clot swells, it can narrow and harden the arteries thereby obstructing or even  full-on blocking blood flow to the heart. As a general rule: The higher your LDL (bad cholesterol), the higher your risk of  heart disease.

When plaque builds up inside the arteries that supply the heart with blood, heart disease develops. If blood flow to a section of heart muscle stops completely, a heart attack occurs.

You can lower elevated cholesterol levels by working with your doctor to make lifestyle adjustments, and, if/when those are not effective, to take medication. Doing so can reduce or even halt plaque buildup in your arteries. Since typically no symptoms occur from high blood cholesterol, the condition can go undiagnosed and untreated. Only a blood test can detect high blood cholesterol. People who are overweight, whose diets are high in fatty foods, and/or whose family members have high cholesterol are more likely to have the condition.