What is it?

Cholesterol embolism occurs when cholesterol is released, usually from an atherosclerotic plaque, and travels as an embolus in the bloodstream to lodge (as an embolism) causing an obstruction in blood vessels further away. Most commonly this causes skin symptoms (usually livedo reticularis), gangrene of the extremities and sometimes kidney failure; problems with other organs may arise, depending on the site at which the cholesterol crystals enter the bloodstream. The diagnosis usually involves biopsy (removing a tissue sample) from an affected organ. Cholesterol embolism is treated by removing the cause and giving supportive therapy; statin drugs have been found to improve the prognosis.

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Additional names

This group contains additional names:
- Atheroembolism of Kidney

Signs & symptoms

The symptoms experienced in cholesterol embolism depend largely on the organ involved. Non-specific symptoms often described are fever, muscle ache and weight loss. Embolism to the legs causes a mottled appearance and purple discoloration of the toes, small infarcts and areas of gangrene due to tissue death that usually appear black, and areas of the skin that assume a marbled pattern known as livedo reticularis. The pain is usually severe and requires opiates. If the ulcerated plaque is below the renal arteries the manifestations appear in both lower extremities. Very rarely the ulcerated plaque is below the aortic bifurcation and in those cases the changes occur only in one lower extremity.
Kidney involvement leads to the symptoms of kidney failure, which are non-specific but usually cause nausea, reduced appetite (anorexia), raised blood pressure (hypertension), and occasionally the various symptoms of electrolyte disturbance such as an irregular heartbeat. Some patients report hematuria (bloody urine) but this may only be detectable on microscopic examination of the urine. Increased amounts of protein in the urine may cause edema (swelling) of the skin (a combination of symptoms known as nephrotic syndrome).


The microscopic examination of tissue (histology) gives the definitive diagnosis. The diagnostic histopathologic finding is intravascular cholesterol crystals, which are seen as cholesterol clefts in routinely processed tissue (embedded in paraffin wax) The cholesterol crystals may be associated with macrophages, including giant cells, and eosinophils.


Treatment of an episode of cholesterol emboli is generally symptomatic, i.e. it deals with the symptoms and complications but cannot reverse the phenomenon itself. In kidney failure resulting from cholesterol crystal emboli, statins (medication that reduces cholesterol levels) have been shown to halve the risk of requiring hemodialysis.

☝️ This is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult with your physician before making any medical decision.

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