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What is Hypertriglyceridemia?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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Hypertriglyceridemia is a medical condition that refers to unusually high levels of fats called triglycerides in the blood. The condition can result from genetic factors, chronic metabolic-related disorders such as diabetes, or a very high-fat diet. The condition can cause many different symptoms, but the most serious concerns with hypertriglyceridemia are pancreatitis and heart disease, complications that can potentially be life-threatening. Most patients who are diagnosed before serious complications occur are able to recover by making smart lifestyle changes and taking medications to regulate blood pressure and body systems.

The most common causes of hypertriglyceridemia are diabetes and obesity. High blood sugar and low insulin levels affect the way the body regulates and metabolizes fat intake, resulting in buildups of triglycerides in the gastrointestinal tract and the bloodstream. Obese people who regularly consume fatty foods and get little exercise are at risk of not only excess triglycerides but also elevated cholesterol, greatly increasing their risk of atherosclerosis and heart failure. In addition, smoking and drinking alcohol have been tied to decreases in the body's ability to process fat.

Some people are genetically predisposed to developing hypertriglyceridemia at some point in their lives. Genetic abnormalities can affect the number or function of enzymes that normally break down dietary fat. People who have familial histories of early-onset heart attacks, strokes, or diabetes are usually encouraged to talk to their doctors about their health risks and learn what they can do to prevent complications.

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Hypertriglyceridemia can manifest in many different ways. Some people notice small, yellow skin lesions on their backs, buttocks, or abdomens called xanthomas. Xanthomas are essentially clumps of excess fatty tissue that have been released into the skin. Hypertriglyceridemia may also cause inflammation of the pancreas, leading to severe abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, fevers, and chills. Very high triglycerides combined with cholesterol buildup can cause breathing difficulties, chest pain, and high blood pressure. Complications can be fatal without prompt medical attention.

Routine blood tests are usually sufficient for a doctor to diagnose hypertriglyceridemia. A patient who experiences physical symptoms may also need to undergo testing for diabetes, blood clots, pancreatitis, and other problems. Specific treatment decisions depend on the underlying causes, but almost all patients are instructed to start exercising and eating healthy, low-fat diets. In addition, most people are given medications to improve metabolism and combat triglyceride buildup. Hypertriglyceridemia associated with diabetes can usually be reversed with insulin injections and blood pressure-regulating drugs.

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