High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (HBP) is a serious condition that can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and other health problems. “Blood pressure” is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps out blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage the body in many ways.
Overview of High Blood Pressure
About 1 in 3 adults in the United States have High Blood Pressure. HBP itself usually has no symptoms. You can have it for years without knowing it. During this time, though, it can damage the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and other parts of your body. Knowing your blood pressure numbers is important, even when you’re feeling fine. If your blood pressure is normal, you can work with your health care team to keep it that way. If your blood pressure is too high, you need treatment to prevent damage to your body’s organs.
Blood Pressure Numbers
Blood pressure numbers include systolic (sis-TOL-ik) and diastolic (di-a-STOL-ik) pressures. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart beats while pumping blood. Diastolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats. You will most often see blood pressure numbers written with the systolic number above or before the diastolic, such as 120/80 mmHg. (The mmHg is millimeters of mercury—the units used to measure blood pressure.)
The table below shows normal healthy numbers for adults, and which numbers put you at higher risk for health problems. Blood pressure tends to go up and down naturally, even in people who have normal blood pressure. If your numbers stay above normal most of the time, you’re at risk.
Blood Pressure Levels in Adults (mmHg or millimeters of mercury)
Systolic (top number)
Diastolic (bottom number)
Less than 120
Less than 80
High blood pressure Stage 1
High blood pressure Stage 2
160 or higher
100 or higher
The ranges in the table apply to most adults (aged 18 and older) who don’t have serious short-term illnesses.
All levels above 120/80 mmHg raise your risk, and the risk grows as blood pressure levels rise. “Prehypertension” means you’re likely to end up with high blood pressure unless you take steps to prevent it.
If you’re being treated for high blood pressure and have repeat readings in the normal range, your blood pressure is under control. However, you still have the condition. You should see your doctor and stay on treatment to keep your blood pressure under control.
Your systolic and diastolic numbers may not be in the same blood pressure category; in this case, you fall in the more severe category. For example, if your systolic number is 160 and your diastolic number is 80, you have stage 2 HBP. If your systolic number is 120 and your diastolic number is 95, you have stage 1 high blood pressure.
If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg or higher. High blood pressure numbers also differ for children and teens.
Blood pressure tends to rise with age. Following a healthy lifestyle helps some people delay or prevent this rise in blood pressure.People who have HBP can take steps to control it and reduce their risks for related health problems. Key steps include following a healthy lifestyle, having ongoing medical care, and following the treatment plan that your doctor prescribes.
Signs and Symptoms of High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (HBP) itself usually has no symptoms. Rarely, headaches may occur. You can have HBP for years without knowing it. During this time, HBP can damage the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and other parts of the body. Some people only learn that they have HBP after the damage has caused problems, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, or kidney failure. Knowing your blood pressure numbers is important, even when you’re feeling fine. If your blood pressure is normal, you can work with your health care team to keep it that way. If your numbers are too high, you can take steps to lower them and control your blood pressure. This helps reduce your risk of complications.
Complications of High Blood Pressure
When blood pressure stays high over time, it can damage the body. High blood pressure can cause:
- The heart to get larger or weaker, which may lead to heart failure. Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood throughout the body.
- Aneurysms (AN-u-risms) to form in blood vessels. An aneurysm is an abnormal bulge or “ballooning” in the wall of an artery. Common spots for aneurysms are the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the body; the arteries in the brain, legs, and intestines; and the artery leading to the spleen.
- Blood vessels in the kidney to narrow, this may cause kidney failure.
- Arteries throughout the body to narrow, limiting blood flow (especially to the heart, brain, kidneys, and legs), and increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, or amputation of part of the leg.
- Blood vessels in the eyes to burst or bleed. This may lead to vision changes or blindness.
Your doctor will diagnose high blood pressure (HBP) using the results of blood pressure tests. These tests will be done several times to make sure the results are correct. If your numbers are high, your doctor may have you return for more tests to check your blood pressure over time.
If your blood pressure is 140/90 mmHg or higher over time, your doctor will likely diagnose you with HBP. If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, a blood pressure of 130/80 mmHg or higher is considered HBP.
The HBP ranges in children are different.(For more information, see below.)
How Is Blood Pressure Tested?
A blood pressure test is easy and painless; it can be performed almost anywhere but most commonly at a doctor’s office or clinic.
To prepare for the test:
- Don’t drink coffee or smoke cigarettes for 30 minutes before the test. These actions may cause a short-term rise in your blood pressure.
- Go to the bathroom before the test. Having a full bladder can change your blood pressure reading.
- Sit for 5 minutes before the test. Movement can cause short-term rises in blood pressure.
To measure your blood pressure, your doctor or nurse will use some type of a gauge, a stethoscope (or electronic sensor), and a blood pressure cuff.
Most often, you will sit or lie down with the cuff around your arm as your doctor or nurse checks your blood pressure. If he or she doesn’t tell you what your blood pressure numbers are, you should ask.
Diagnosing High Blood Pressure in Children and Teens
Doctors measure blood pressure in children and teens the same way they do in adults. Your child should have routine blood pressure checks starting at three years of age.
Blood pressure typically rises with age and body size. Newborn babies often have very low blood pressure numbers, while older teens have numbers similar to adults.
The ranges for normal blood pressure and HBP are generally lower for youth than for adults. These ranges are based on the average blood pressure numbers for age, gender, and height.
To find out whether a child has HBP, a doctor will compare the child’s blood pressure numbers to average numbers for his or her age, height, and gender.
For more information, see the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s “A Pocket Guide to Blood Pressure Measurement in Children.”
What Does a Diagnosis of High Blood Pressure Mean?
If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, you will need treatment. You will also need to have your blood pressure regularly tested to see how the treatment is affecting it.
Once your blood pressure is under control, you will need to stay on treatment. “Under control” means that your blood pressure numbers are normal. You also will need regular blood pressure tests. Your doctor can tell you how often you should be tested.
The sooner you find out about HBP and treat it, the better your chances to avoid problems like heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.
High blood pressure (HBP) is treated with lifestyle changes medicines and supplements.
Most people who have HBP will need lifelong treatment, sticking to your treatment plan is essential. It can prevent or delay the problems linked to HBP and help you live and stay active longer.
For more tips on controlling your blood pressure, see the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI’s) “Your Guide to Lowering Blood Pressure.”
Goals of Treatment
The treatment goal for most adults is to get and keep blood pressure below 140/90 mmHg. For adults who have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, the goal is to get and keep blood pressure below 130/80 mmHg.
Healthy habits can help you control HBP. Healthy habits include:
- Following a healthy eating plan
- Doing enough physical activity
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Quitting smoking
- Managing your stress and learning to cope with stress
If you combine these measures, you can achieve even better results than taking single steps. Making lifestyle changes can be hard. Start by making one healthy lifestyle change and then adopt others.
Some people can control their blood pressures with lifestyle changes alone, but many people can’t. Keep in mind that the main goal is blood pressure control. If your doctor prescribes medicines as a part of your treatment plan, keep up your healthy habits, this will help you better control your blood pressure.
Follow a Healthy Eating Plan
Your doctor may recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan if you have HBP. The DASH eating plan focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are heart-healthy and lower in sodium (salt).
This eating plan is low in fat and cholesterol. It also features fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products, fish, poultry, and nuts. The DASH eating plan suggests less red meat (even lean red meat), sweets, added sugars, and sugar-containing beverages. The program is rich in nutrients, protein, and fiber.
To help control HBP, you should limit the amount of salt that you consume — choosing low-salt and “no added salt” foods and seasonings at the table or when cooking. The Nutrition Facts label on food packaging shows the amount of sodium in the item. You should eat no more than about one teaspoon of salt a day.
You also should try to limit alcoholic drinks, as too much alcohol will raise your blood pressure. Men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks a day. Women should have no more than one alcoholic beverage a day.
For more information on limiting salt and alcohol in your diet, see the Your Guide to Lowering High Blood Pressure Web site.
Do Enough Physical Activity
Regular physical activity can lower HBP and also reduce your risk for other health problems. Check with your doctor about how much and what kinds of activity are safe for you. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most or all days of the week. You can do it all at once or break it up into shorter periods of at least 10 minutes each.
Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, dancing, bowling, riding a bike, working in a garden, and cleaning the house.
If your doctor agrees, you also may want to do more intense activities, such as jogging, swimming, and playing sports.
For more information, see the NHLBI’s “Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart.”
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Staying at a healthy weight can help control blood pressure and also reduce your risk for other health problems.
If you’re overweight or obese, aim to reduce your weight by 7 to 10 percent during your first year of treatment. This amount of weight loss can lower your risk for health problems related to HBP.
After the first year, you may have to continue to lose weight so you can lower your body mass index (BMI) to less than 25.
BMI measures your weight in relation to your height and gives an estimate of your total body fat. A BMI between 25 and 29 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or more is deemed to be obese. A BMI of less than 25 is the goal for keeping blood pressure under control.
You can measure your BMI using the NHLBI’s online calculator, or your health care provider can help.
For more information on losing weight and keeping it off, see the Diseases and Conditions Index Overweight and Obesity article.
Smoking can damage your blood vessels and raise your risk for high blood pressure. It also can worsen health problems related to HBP. Smoking is unhealthy for everyone, especially those who have high blood pressure.
If you smoke or use tobacco, quit, speak with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has information on how to quit smoking. Also, take steps to protect yourself from secondhand smoke.
Learning how to manage stress, relax, and cope with problems can improve your emotional and physical health.
Physical activity helps some people cope with stress. Other people listen to music or focus on something calm or peaceful to reduce stress. Some people learn yoga, tai chi, or how to meditate.
Medicines to Control High Blood Pressure
Today’s blood pressure medicines can safely help most people control their blood pressures. These medicines are easy to take, the side effects, if any, tend to be minor.
If you have side effects from your medicines, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to adjust the doses or prescribe other medications. You shouldn’t decide on your own to stop taking your medicines.
Blood pressure medicines work in different ways to lower blood pressure. Some remove extra fluid and salt from the body to lower blood pressure. Others slow down the heartbeat or relax and widen blood vessels. Often, two or more medicines work better than one.
Diuretics are sometimes called water pills. They help your kidneys flush excess water and salt from your body. This lessens the amount of fluid in your blood, and your blood pressure goes down.
Diuretics often are used with other HBP medicines and sometimes combined into one pill.
Beta blockers help your heart beat slower and with less force. Your heart pumps less blood through your blood vessels, and your blood pressure goes down.
ACE inhibitors keep your body from making a hormone called angiotensin II. This hormone n causes blood vessels to narrow. ACE inhibitors prevent this, so your blood pressure goes down normally.
Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers
Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) are newer blood pressure medicines that protect your blood vessels from angiotensin II. As a result, blood vessels relax and widen, and your blood pressure goes down.
Calcium Channel Blockers
Calcium channel blockers (CCBs) keep calcium from entering the muscle cells of your heart and blood vessels. This allows blood vessels to relax, and your blood pressure goes down.
Alpha blockers reduce nerve impulses that tighten blood vessels. This allows blood to flow more freely, causing blood pressure to go down.
Alpha-beta blockers reduce nerve impulses the same way alpha blockers do. However, they also slow the heartbeat like beta blockers. As a result, blood pressure goes down.
Nervous System Inhibitors
Nervous system inhibitors increase nerve impulses from the brain to relax and widen blood vessels. This causes blood pressure to go down.
Vasodilators relax the muscles in blood vessel walls. This causes blood pressure to go down.
Treatment for Children and Teens
If another condition is causing your child’s high blood pressure, treating it often resolves the HBP. When the cause of a child or teen’s HBP isn’t known, the first line of treatment is lifestyle changes (as it is for adults).
If lifestyle changes don’t control blood pressure, children and teens also may need to take medicines. Most of the medications listed above for adults have different doses for children.
High Blood Pressure: 4 Categories of Blood Pressure Measurements
NORMAL BLOOD PRESSURE
- Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mmHg.
- Systolic pressure that ranges from 120-139 mmHg and a diastolic pressure ranging from 80-89 mmHg.
STAGE 1 HYPERTENSION
- Systolic pressure ranges from 140-159 mmHg or a diastolic pressure that ranges from 90-99 mmHg.
STAGE 2 HYPERTENSION
- Systolic pressure is 160 mmHg or a diastolic pressure of 100 mmHg or higher.
One can have high blood pressure or hypertension for years without presenting any symptoms. When uncontrolled blood pressure increases, the risk of developing other serious health problems also increases. Hypertension can develop over many years, and it affects nearly everyone eventually in their lifetime. Luckily, high blood pressure can be detected, and once when a patient is informed about it, they can work with their doctor to control it.