Cholesterol Embolism



Cholesterol embolism syndrome, shown below, should be suspected in a patient who develops worsening renal function, hypertension, distal ischemia, or acute multisystem dysfunction after an invasive arterial procedure. Atheroemboli may also occur spontaneously. The protean manifestations of this syndrome make the diagnosis challenging. As the population ages, the incidence of cholesterol embolism syndrome will increase.

See the image below.

View Image

Cholesterol crystal embolization from upstream coronary artery plaque after percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty.


Key components of cholesterol embolism syndrome include the following:

Any organ system, with the exception of the lungs, may be directly affected. Cholesterol embolism syndrome has 2 mechanisms of action.

In the first, cholesterol crystals spontaneously break off from severely atherosclerotic plaques and shower into downstream organs, occluding arterioles 100-200 micrometers in diameter. The crystals induce an inflammatory body reaction and adventitial fibrosis, which eventually obliterate the vessel lumen. Local vasospastic mediators compound tissue ischemia and produce progressive, irreversible organ damage.

With the second mechanism, larger cholesterol plaques break off and occlude larger arteries, causing tissue infarction with acute organ dysfunction. This can occur after local trauma to the atherosclerotic plaque, such as that caused by angiography or aortic trauma, or it can occur after destabilization of the protective clot overlying the plaque, which can occur as a result of anticoagulation.

Cholesterol crystal embolization occurs from the arterial system, and crystals are trapped in the arterioles where they either immediately occlude the vessels or induce an intense inflammatory response that leads to tissue ischemia. Crystals do not travel to the lungs; however, inflammatory mediators released by ischemic tissue may result in acute lung injury.



United States

See Internationally below.


Estimates of the incidence of cholesterol embolic disease are usually based on autopsy data. Tissue sections from patients with the following diseases or indicate the incidence of atheroembolic events: aortic aneurysms (31%), abdominal aortic aneurysm repair (up to 77%), severe aortic disease (13-16%), and mild aortic disease (1-2%). Of patients undergoing angiography, 25-30% may have atheroembolic events, while 2.5-3% of patients who receive percutaneous coronary transluminal angioplasty vein grafts and 1.4-3% of patients undergoing renal artery angioplasty or cardiac catheterization have been reported to have clinical signs of atheroemboli. Cholesterol embolism syndrome has been reported as occurring months after thrombolytic therapy for stroke, but the true incidence is unknown.[1, 2]



Men have a higher risk than women.


Cholesterol embolism is a disease of persons ranging from middle-aged to elderly, with a minimum age of 50 years.


The diagnosis of cholesterol embolism must be considered in patients older than 50 years who have atherosclerotic disease presenting with multisystem dysfunction after undergoing an invasive vascular procedure or receiving an anticoagulant or thrombolytic agent within the past several months. All patients with the classic triad of livedo reticularis, acute renal failure, and eosinophilia should be evaluated for cholesterol embolism, including a funduscopic examination.

Clinicians should be aware that the syndrome may not manifest until chronic crystal embolization and inflammatory changes have occluded enough vessels to create detectable organ damage. Patients may have unexplained fever, weight loss, myalgias, or anorexia for weeks or months after a procedure before presenting with acute renal failure, hyperkalemia, GI bleeding, or stroke.



Any risk factor for atherosclerotic disease is a risk factor for cholesterol embolism.

Preoperative risk factors for cholesterol embolism syndrome after coronary artery bypass surgery include being older than 60 years, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, aortoiliac disease, and mitral annular calcification. Although the other factors are well known, the association between mitral annular calcification and aortic atherosclerosis was identified only recently.

Identifying patients at risk and making efforts to minimize aortic wall trauma help reduce the chance of cholesterol embolism. The risk for a patient developing cholesterol embolism may be reduced by using a brachial or axillary approach in patients known to have severely ulcerated aortic plaque, using soft flexible catheters, and avoiding high-pressure jets of contrast material.

Laboratory Studies

Imaging Studies


Histologic Findings

The actual cholesterol crystals are dissolved during fixation, leaving intra-arterial biconvex ghosts. Often, the crystals are missed because the depth of the tissue sample is inadequate. If these ghosts are absent, the diagnosis still may be inferred by fibrinoid necrosis, as depicted in the image below, and a foreign-body reaction in tissues commonly involved by atheromatous emboli in a patient with consistent clinical findings. Exuberant adventitial fibrosis contributes to vessel lumen occlusion.

See the image below.

View Image

Necrosis of the abdominal wall in a patient with cholesterol embolism syndrome who received anticoagulation.

Medical Care

Medical management is supportive.

Surgical Care


Medication Summary

Medical therapy is not particularly successful in patients with cholesterol embolism syndrome. Vasodilator therapy with calcium channel blockers may help relieve the local ischemia resulting from vasospasm, but angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors should not be used because of their negative effects on renal afferent arterioles and the glomerular filtration rate. Patients presumed to have vasculitis have been treated with high-dose steroids and antiinflammatory agents, with anecdotal reports of recovery. However, steroids may predispose patients to infectious, metabolic, and nutritional complications and difficulties with wound healing. The use of anticoagulants is controversial because anticoagulants and thrombolytics have been shown to induce atheroemboli. Anecdotal reports of treatment with apheresis, iloprost, statin, colchicine, or combinations of these drugs with steroids report improvement in some cases.





Lisa Kirkland, MD, FACP, CNSP, MSHA, Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hospital Medicine, Mayo Clinic; ANW Intensivists, Abbott Northwestern Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editors

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Travis J Phifer, MD, Chief, Division of Vascular Surgery, Professor, Department of Surgery and Radiology, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Paolo Zamboni, MD, Professor of Surgery, Chief of Day Surgery Unit, Chair of Vascular Diseases Center, University of Ferrara, Italy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Vincent Lopez Rowe, MD, Professor of Surgery, Program Director, Vascular Surgery Residency, Department of Surgery, Division of Vascular Surgery, Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


  1. Oe K, Araki T, Nakashima A, Sato K, Konno T, Yamagishi M. Late onset of cholesterol crystal embolism after thrombolysis for cerebral infarction. Intern Med. 2010;49(9):833-6. [View Abstract]
  2. Higo S, Hirama A, Ueda K, Mii A, Kaneko T, Utsumi K. A patient with idiopathic cholesterol crystal embolization: effectiveness of early detection and treatment. J Nippon Med Sch. 2011;78(4):252-6. [View Abstract]
  3. Jucgla A, Moreso F, Muniesa C. Cholesterol Embolism: Still an Unrecognized Entity with a High Mortality. J Am Acad Derm. 2006;55:786-793.
  4. Willens HJ, Kramer HJ, Kessler KM. Transesophageal echocardiographic findings in blue toe syndrome exacerbated by anticoagulation. J Am Soc Echocardiogr. Nov-Dec 1996;9(6):882-4. [View Abstract]
  5. Acarturk E, Ozeren A, Sarica Y. Detection of aortic plaques by transesophageal echocardiography in patients with ischemic stroke. Acta Neurol Scand. Aug 1995;92(2):170-2. [View Abstract]
  6. Adler Y, Shohat-Zabarski R, Vaturi M, Shapira Y, Ehrlich S, Jortner R. Association between mitral annular calcium and aortic atheroma as detected by transesophageal echocardiographic study. Am J Cardiol. Mar 15 1998;81(6):784-6. [View Abstract]
  7. Belenfant X, Meyrier A, Jacquot C. Supportive treatment improves survival in multivisceral cholesterol crystal embolism. Am J Kidney Dis. May 1999;33(5):840-50. [View Abstract]
  8. Brown PJ, Zirwas MJ, English JC 3rd. The purple digit: an algorithmic approach to diagnosis. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2010;11(2):103-16. [View Abstract]
  9. Carroccio A, Olin JW, Ellozy SH, Lookstein RA, Valenzuela R, Minor ME. The role of aortic stent grafting in the treatment of atheromatous embolization syndrome: results after a mean of 15 months follow-up. J Vasc Surg. Sep 2004;40(3):424-9. [View Abstract]
  10. Elinav E, Chajek-Shaul T, Stern M. Improvement in cholesterol emboli syndrome after iloprost therapy. BMJ. Feb 2 2002;324(7332):268-9. [View Abstract]
  11. Frank RD, Velden J. Images in clinical medicine. Cholesterol emboli after coronary bypass surgery. N Engl J Med. Jan 20 2011;364(3):265. [View Abstract]
  12. Fukumoto Y, Tsutsui H, Tsuchihashi M, Masumoto A, Takeshita A,. The incidence and risk factors of cholesterol embolization syndrome, a complication of cardiac catheterization: a prospective study. J Am Coll Cardiol. Jul 16 2003;42(2):211-6. [View Abstract]
  13. Hasegawa M, Sugiyama S. Apheresis in the treatment of cholesterol embolic disease. Therap Apher Dial. Aug 2003;7(4):435-8. [View Abstract]
  14. Hirano Y, Ishikaw K. Cholesterol Embolization Syndrome: How to Recognize and Prevent This Potentially Catastrophic Iatrogenic Disease. Int Med. 2005;44:1209-1210.
  15. Katz ES, Tunick PA, Rusinek H, Ribakove G, Spencer FC, Kronzon I. Protruding aortic atheromas predict stroke in elderly patients undergoing cardiopulmonary bypass: experience with intraoperative transesophageal echocardiography. J Am Coll Cardiol. Jul 1992;20(1):70-7. [View Abstract]
  16. Keen RR, McCarthy WJ, Shireman PK, Feinglass J, Pearce WH, Durham JR. Surgical management of atheroembolization. J Vasc Surg. May 1995;21(5):773-80; discussion 780-1. [View Abstract]
  17. Kirkland L. Cholesterol embolism in intensive care patients. J Intensive Care Med. 1993;7(3):12-21.
  18. Kolh PH, Torchiana DF, Buckley MJ. Atheroembolization in cardiac surgery. The need for preoperative diagnosis. J Cardiovasc Surg (Torino). Feb 1999;40(1):77-81. [View Abstract]
  19. Kronzon I, Saric M. Cholesterol embolization syndrome. Circulation. Aug 10 2010;122(6):631-41. [View Abstract]
  20. Lowe HC, Houser SL, Aretz T, MacNeill BD, Oesterle SN, Palacios IF. Significant atheromatous debris following uncomplicated vein graft direct stenting: evidence supporting routine use of distal protection devices. J Invasive Cardiol. Oct 2002;14(10):636-9. [View Abstract]
  21. Maki T, Izumi C, Miyake M, Izumi T, Takahashi S, Himura Y, et al. Cholesterol embolism after cardiac catheterization mimicking infective endocarditis. Intern Med. Oct 2005;44(10):1060-3. [View Abstract]
  22. Manganoni AM, Venturini M, Scolari F, Tucci G, Facchetti F, Graifemberghi S. The importance of skin biopsy in the diverse clinical manifestations of cholesterol embolism. Br J Dermatol. Jun 2004;150(6):1230-1. [View Abstract]
  23. Resnik KS. Intravascular cholesterol clefts as an incidental finding: cholesterol embolism or not?. Am J Dermatopathol. Dec 2003;25(6):497-9. [View Abstract]
  24. Ribakove GH, Katz ES, Galloway AC, Grossi EA, Esposito RA, Baumann FG. Surgical implications of transesophageal echocardiography to grade the atheromatous aortic arch. Ann Thorac Surg. May 1992;53(5):758-61; discussion 762-3. [View Abstract]
  25. Sanai T, Matsui R, Hirano T. LDL apheresis for cholesterol embolism following coronary artery bypass graft surgery--a case report. Angiology. May-Jun 2006;57(3):379-82. [View Abstract]
  26. Tenenbaum A, Garniek A, Shemesh J, Fisman EZ, Stroh CI, Itzchak Y. Dual-helical CT for detecting aortic atheromas as a source of stroke: comparison with transesophageal echocardiography. Radiology. Jul 1998;208(1):153-8. [View Abstract]
  27. Vayssairat M, Chakkour K, Gouny P, Nussaume O. Atheromatous embolisms and cholesterol embolisms: medical treatment [French]. J Mal Vasc. 1996;21 Suppl A:97-9. [View Abstract]
  28. Verneuil L, Ze Bekolo R, Dompmartin A, Comoz F, Marcelli C, Leroy D. Efficiency of colchicine and corticosteroids in a leg ulceration with cholesterol embolism in a woman with rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatology (Oxford). Aug 2003;42(8):1014-6. [View Abstract]

Cholesterol crystal embolization from upstream coronary artery plaque after percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty.

Necrosis of the abdominal wall in a patient with cholesterol embolism syndrome who received anticoagulation.

Cholesterol crystal embolization from upstream coronary artery plaque after percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty.

Necrosis of the abdominal wall in a patient with cholesterol embolism syndrome who received anticoagulation.