Triglycerides are a type of fat that circulate in the blood. Your body makes triglycerides and gets them from the foods you eat.
Having very high levels of triglycerides in your blood, also called hypertriglyceridemia, can put you at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, and acute pancreatitis.
Most people with high blood triglycerides don’t have symptoms, but if you have extremely high levels of triglycerides in your blood, you may develop xanthomas (lipid deposits that form under the skin), creamy white discoloration of your retinas, or upper abdominal pain.
Triglycerides are an important type of fat in the blood that the body stores and uses for energy. But having too many triglycerides in your blood can increase your risk of several metabolic conditions, including heart attack and stroke.
Though most people with high levels of triglycerides don’t experience any symptoms, some people with extremely high levels of triglycerides may have xanthomas (lipid deposits that form under the skin) or creamy white discoloration of the retina. In some cases, extremely high levels of triglycerides can lead to acute pancreatitis—the main symptom of which is severe pain in the upper abdomen.
If you have a family history of high triglycerides, heart attack, or stroke, it’s important to get your triglyceride levels tested. And if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s important to seek help from your healthcare provider.
What Are Triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat that circulate in the blood and are used for energy. The body makes triglycerides and also gets them from the foods that you eat, like butter and oils. When you eat more calories than your body can use, your body converts them into triglycerides.
Triglycerides are essential for overall good health, muscle support, and energy. But having high levels of triglycerides in the blood can affect your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and acute pancreatitis.
What Is Hypertriglyceridemia?
Hypertriglyceridemia occurs when you have too many triglycerides in your blood. The cause of hypertriglyceridemia is usually multifactorial. This means that there are usually several factors that contribute to the development of hypertriglyceridemia, rather than just one. Common causes of hypertriglyceridemia include:
- Genetics: Genetics can play an important role in the development of high triglyceride levels. Genetic lipid disorders that can lead to hypertriglyceridemia include familial hypertriglyceridemia and familial combined hyperlipidemia.
- Medical conditions: Conditions that can contribute to the development of hypertriglyceridemia include obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, hypothyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome, HIV, and pregnancy.
- Medications: Certain medications can also cause hypertriglyceridemia, including beta-blockers, oral estrogen, tamoxifen, anti-retroviral protease inhibitors, atypical antipsychotics, isotretinoin, corticosteroids, bile acid-binding resins, and some immunosuppressive agents.
Symptoms of High Triglycerides
Unfortunately, most people with high triglyceride levels don’t experience symptoms. This is why it’s important to get your levels tested if you have a family history of heart disease, stroke, or high triglycerides.
However, some people with very high levels of triglycerides may experience symptoms, including upper abdominal pain, xanthomas, creamy white discoloration of the retinal vessels, and irritability.
Upper abdominal pain
Having extremely high levels of triglycerides in the blood can increase the risk of acute pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. The primary symptom of acute pancreatitis is pain in the upper abdomen that can spread to the back. Additional symptoms include fever, nausea and vomiting, fast heartbeat, and a swollen or tender abdomen.
People who have a genetic lipid disorder that causes high triglycerides may experience eruptive xanthomas. Eruptive xanthomas are small, yellow-red bumps that occur when fats build up under the surface of the skin. Although they can appear anywhere, they most often appear on the elbows, joints, tendons, knees, hands, feet, or buttocks.
Creamy white discoloration of retinal vessels
Another possible symptom of hypertriglyceridemia is lipemia retinalis, or when the retinas of the eyes become discolored, often appearing creamy and thin. This most often occurs in people with triglyceride levels greater than 1000 mg/dL.
In some cases, people with hypertriglyceridemia can also experience certain neurological symptoms, such as irritability.
Complications from High Triglycerides
High triglycerides can increase your risk of medical conditions, including:
- Heart attack or heart disease
- Acute pancreatitis
How Is Hypertriglyceridemia Diagnosed?
Hypertriglyceridemia is diagnosed through a simple blood test. You may need to fast for 9-12 hours before the test. The blood test usually takes no more than five minutes to complete.
Triglyceride levels are generally measured in milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL). Guidelines for triglyceride results in adults are as follows:
- Normal: less than 150 mg/dL
- Borderline high: 150-199 mg/dL
- High: 200-499 mg/dL
- Extremely high: 500 mg/dl or higher
High Triglycerides Treatment
If you’re diagnosed with high triglycerides, your provider may recommend a treatment plan of lifestyle changes, medication, or both.
Lifestyle modifications that can help to improve your triglyceride levels include:
- Eating heart-healthy foods and avoiding added sugar and foods high in saturated fat
- Getting regular exercise
- Avoiding or limiting alcohol intake
- Quitting smoking
- Weight management
- Getting regular, quality sleep
- Managing stress
In some cases, your provider may recommend taking certain medications to help lower your triglycerides. These medications may include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Nicotinic acid
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Definition & Facts for Pancreatitis. (2017.)
Eruptive xanthomatosis. (2020.)
High Blood Triglycerides. (2022.)
Hypertriglyceridemia: its etiology, effects and treatment. (2007.)
Lipemia Retinalis. (2021.)
Triglycerides Test. (2022.)