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When doctors take a person’s blood pressure, they measure the force that blood exerts on the walls of the arteries as it flows through them.
If blood pressure is too high for too long, it can cause serious damage to the blood vessels.
This can lead to various complications, some of which can be life threatening. They include:
There are ways of managing high blood pressure, or hypertension. The condition does not often cause symptoms, but regular screening can help a person know if preventive measures are necessary.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) estimates that high blood pressure affects around 45% of adults in the U.S.
In this article, we look at the causes of high blood pressure and how to treat it. We also explain the blood pressure measurements that health authorities consider to be typical or too high.
The heart is a muscle that pumps blood around the body. As it travels, the blood delivers oxygen to the body’s vital organs.
Sometimes, a problem in the body makes it harder for the heart to pump blood. For example, this could occur if an artery becomes too narrow.
Persistent high blood pressure can place strain on the walls of the arteries. This can lead to various health problems, some of which can be life threatening.
The chart below shows measures for typical and high blood pressure, according to the
Doctors measure blood pressure in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
There are two parts to a blood pressure measurement: Systolic pressure, the top number on a blood pressure reading, is the blood pressure when the heart contracts. Diastolic pressure is the blood pressure between heartbeats. It is the lower number of the measurement and represents the blood pressure when the heart rests between beats.
Therefore, if blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg, the systolic pressure is 120 mm Hg and the diastolic pressure is 80 mm Hg.
A blood pressure monitor
Learn more about systolic and diastolic pressure.
The table below shows how doctors interpret a person’s blood pressure:
What is typical blood pressure? Find out here.
You can buy a blood pressure monitor for home use here.
Most people with high blood pressure will not experience any symptoms, which is why people often call hypertension the “silent killer.”
However, once blood pressure reaches about 180/120 mm Hg, it becomes a hypertensive crisis, which constitutes a medical emergency.
At this stage, a person may have:
Anybody who experiences these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
Hormonal factors mean that the risk of high blood pressure may be different in males and females.
Factors that can
During pregnancy, high blood pressure can indicate preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous condition that can affect both the person and their fetus.
Symptoms of preeclampsia include:
All people should follow the guidelines for screening and attend all health checks, especially during pregnancy.
Some argue that, until menopause, hormonal factors — and specifically the presence of estrogen — helps protect people from high blood pressure. When menopause occurs, individuals lose this protection, effectively making menopause the main risk factor for cardiovascular disease among females.
However, some suggest that other factors may increase the risk around this time, such as increased body mass index, aging, and dietary changes, whether hormonal changes also play a role or not.
Teenagers can develop high blood pressure due to obesity or an underlying medical condition.
Possible medical factors
These conditions may have symptoms of their own.
The symptoms of high blood pressure, if they occur, will be the same as for other groups.
High blood pressure can affect children. Having obesity and diabetes increases the risk, but other underlying causes include:
As with adults, high blood pressure does not often cause symptoms in children.
However, if they occur, they may include:
These symptoms are likely to indicate severe hypertension.
They may also have signs of another condition.
Newborns and very young babies can sometimes have high blood pressure due to an underlying health condition, such as kidney or heart disease.
Any symptoms may be non-specific or not noticeable, or hypertension may occur alongside symptoms of other conditions.
An infant with high blood pressure may also experience:
Other symptoms will depend on the condition causing the high blood pressure.
High blood pressure can occur when certain changes happen in the body or if a person is born with specific genetic features that cause a health condition.
It can affect people with:
Sometimes, there is no apparent cause. In this case, a doctor will diagnose primary hypertension.
Consuming a low fat diet, maintaining a moderate weight, reducing alcohol consumption, stopping smoking tobacco, will help lower the risk of high blood pressure.
Treatment will depend on several factors, including how high the blood pressure is and the risk of cardiovascular disease or a stroke.
The doctor will recommend different treatments as blood pressure increases. For slightly high blood pressure, they may suggest making lifestyle changes and monitoring the blood pressure.
If blood pressure is high, they will recommend medication. The options may change over time, according to how severe the hypertension is and whether complications arise, such as kidney disease. Some people may also need a combination of several different medications.
Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors block the actions of some hormones that regulate blood pressure, such as angiotensin II. Angiotensin II causes the arteries to constrict and increases blood volume, increasing blood pressure.
ACE inhibitors can reduce the blood supply to the kidneys, making them less effective. As a result, people taking them need to undergo regular blood tests.
Additionally, individuals should not use ACE inhibitors if they are pregnant or have a condition that affects the blood supply to the kidneys.
ACE inhibitors may cause the following side effects, which usually resolve after a few days:
If the side effects are persistent or too unpleasant to manage, a doctor may prescribe an angiotensin II receptor antagonist instead.
These alternative medications often cause fewer side effects, but they may include dizziness, headaches, and increased potassium levels in the blood.
Calcium channel blockers (CCBs) aim to decrease calcium levels in the blood vessels. This will relax the vascular smooth muscle, causing the muscle to contract less forcefully, the arteries to widen, and blood pressure to reduce.
However, CCBs may not always be suitable for people with a history of heart disease, liver disease, or blood circulation issues. A doctor can advise on taking CCBs and which type is safe to use.
The following side effects may occur with CCBs, but they usually resolve after a few days:
Learn more about CCBs.
Thiazide diuretics help the kidneys remove sodium and water, lowering blood volume and pressure.
The following side effects of taking them can occur, and some may persist:
People taking thiazide diuretics should undergo regular blood and urine tests to monitor their blood sugar and potassium levels.
Beta-blockers were once popular for treating hypertension, but doctors now only tend to prescribe them when other treatments are ineffective.
These medications slow the heart rate and reduce the force of the heartbeat, causing a drop in blood pressure.
Side effects from beta-blockers may include:
Less common side effects are:
Beta-blockers are often the standard medication for a person with very high blood pressure, known as a hypertensive crisis.
Aliskiren (Tekturna, Rasilez) reduces the production of renin, an enzyme that the kidneys produce.
Renin helps produce a hormone that narrows blood vessels and raises blood pressure. Reducing this hormone causes the blood vessels to widen and blood pressure to fall.
Possible side effects include:
It is essential to read the packaging of any medication to check for interactions with other drugs.
Find out more detail about blood pressure medications.
Managing the diet can be an effective way of preventing and treating high blood pressure.
A nutritious, balanced diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, vegetable and omega oils, and good quality, unrefined carbohydrates, such as whole grains. People who include animal products in their diet should trim the fat off and avoid processed meats.
Experts recommend reducing salt consumption and increasing potassium intake to manage or prevent high blood pressure. Limiting salt intake to less than
In moderation, plant-based sources of fats, such as avocados, nuts, olive oil, and omega oils, can provide benefits. People should limit their intake of saturated fats and trans fats, common in animal-sourced and processed foods.
Health experts recommend the DASH diet for people with high blood pressure. The DASH diet focuses on an eating plan that emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and low fat dairy products.
Which foods are good for reducing blood pressure? Find out here.
People who regularly drink more than moderate amounts of alcohol will almost always experience elevated blood pressure levels.
Studies into the relationship between caffeine and blood pressure have produced conflicting results. A report published in 2017 concluded that a moderate intake of coffee appears to be safe for people with high blood pressure.
Discuss any planned lifestyle changes with a healthcare professional before introducing them.
The AHA notes that most healthy people should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise a week. This could be 30 minutes — or three sessions of 10 minutes a day — 5 days per week.
This amount of exercise is also appropriate for those with high blood pressure.
However, a person who has not exercised for a while or who has a new diagnosis should speak with their doctor before starting a new physical activity program to ensure it is suitable.
Weight loss will also improve the effectiveness of blood pressure medications.
Methods of achieving and maintaining a moderate weight include getting regular exercise and following a diet that emphasizes plant-based foods. A person should also limit their intake of fat and added sugars.
Learn about maintaining weight loss.
Increasing sleep alone cannot treat hypertension, but too little sleep and reduced sleep quality may make it worse.
Find more tips on how to manage high blood pressure.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the following
However, the NCCIH adds that there is insufficient evidence to confirm that these can make a difference.
It also warns that some supplements can have adverse effects, such as raising blood pressure or interacting with medications. The organization states that meditation and exercise therapies are usually safe, but some poses may not be suitable for people with high blood pressure.
Anyone considering an alternative therapy should speak with their doctor first.
Get some tips for lowering blood pressure naturally.
There are different devices for measuring blood pressure. A doctor may use a digital device or a manual sphygmomanometer with a stethoscope. This has a pressure cuff that they put around the person’s arm.
Digital blood pressure-measuring devices suitable for home use are also available for purchase online.
A person will typically need more than one reading to confirm a diagnosis, as various factors can affect the result.
Blood pressure can fluctuate:
However, a doctor will take immediate action if a reading shows very high blood pressure or if there are signs of organ damage or other complications.
Other tests can help confirm a diagnosis, including those below.
Healthy blood pressure is essential for maintaining bodily functions.
High blood pressure can have a
All of these effects can be life threatening.
Decongestants are a useful over-the-counter remedy when people have a stuffy or runny nose, but some
Ingredients that can have this effect include:
A person should explain to their pharmacist that they have high blood pressure and ask them to recommend a suitable option.
The main risk factors for high blood pressure are likely to be environmental, but genetic factors may play a role. Hypertension can run in families, and people from certain ethnic and racial backgrounds appear to have a higher risk.
If a person has genetic factors that increase their susceptibility to high blood pressure, and they make lifestyle choices that increase this risk, they will likely have a greater chance of developing hypertension.
For example, the natural sodium content in vegetables is enough for most individuals’ bodily needs. With this in mind, avoiding the salt shaker and eating less processed and premade food are suitable ways to cut salt intake.
Without treatment or taking measures to manage blood pressure, excessive pressure on the artery walls can cause damage to the blood vessels, a form of cardiovascular disease. It can also damage vital organs.
Possible complications of high blood pressure include:
Seeking early treatment and managing blood pressure can help prevent many health complications.
Black Americans are 40% more likely to have hypertension and 30% more likely to die of heart disease than white Americans, studies show. A
Learn more about how heart disease affects Black Americans.
Many people with high blood pressure do not have symptoms. For this reason, they must undergo regular screenings, especially those with a higher risk.
The USPSTF recommends annual screening for:
Adults aged 18–39 years whose blood pressure is typical (less than 130/85 mm Hg) and who do not have other risk factors should have further screenings every 3–5 years.
If rescreening in the doctor’s office shows that blood pressure has risen, the USPSTF recommends using an ambulatory blood pressure monitor for 24 hours to assess blood pressure further. If this continues to show high blood pressure, the doctor will diagnose hypertension.
However, the USPSTF does not currently recommend routine screening for those aged 17 years and under.
Read the article in Spanish.
High blood pressure is a potentially dangerous condition that often has no symptoms but can lead to a heart attack, stroke, and other life threatening conditions. Health experts define healthy blood pressure as lower than
Anyone who notices their blood pressure is
People should ask their doctor how often they should undergo blood pressure screenings, as many factors can affect their blood pressure and heart health.
Last medically reviewed on February 6, 2022
We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.