What is a Cholesterol Embolism?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 June 2019
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A cholesterol embolism is a medical condition which occurs when a chunk of cholesterol breaks away from the lining of an artery and travels through the bloodstream, ultimately impeding the flow of blood. Because the chunk of cholesterol can potentially end up anywhere in the body, the symptoms and complications associated with a cholesterol embolism are incredibly varied, and the condition can sometimes be difficult to diagnose.

The most common cause of a cholesterol embolism is a medical procedure which involves the blood vessels or arteries, as such procedures can loosen plaques of cholesterol, potentially creating a situation where a chunk could break off. Emboli are also associated with certain medications, and they are more common in the elderly, especially among Caucasians. While it is rare for a cholesterol embolism to occur spontaneously, this will occasionally happen, and it can sometimes impede the diagnosis.

Cholesterol embolisms often cause kidney failure, so when a patient presents with renal failure and he or she is at risk of a cholesterol embolism, the doctor may consider an embolism as a possible cause. It can also cause edema, a build-up of fluid in the extremities, and a variety of skin conditions which manifest in the form of splotchy or tender skin as the flow of blood to the skin is obstructed. Cholesterol embolisms have also been known to cause gangrene and a variety of problems with the nervous system and organs.


Treatment for a cholesterol embolism, once one has been diagnosed, typically focuses on mitigating the symptoms. In the case of kidney failure, dialysis may be used to help the failing kidneys. While the clot of cholesterol itself cannot be removed, the results of the clotting can be treated, and the human body is remarkably versatile, when given a chance; ultimately it can re-route its blood supply to address the blockage.

People with high cholesterol are naturally at a higher risk for this condition, as are people who undergo certain medical procedures. As a general rule, a doctor will discuss the potential risk of a cholesterol embolism with patients before recommending a procedure or medication which could increase this risk, and people who are at risk are encouraged to monitor their health for early signs of a problem.



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