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Home > Health Library > High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is a measure of how hard the blood pushes against the walls of your arteries. It's normal for blood pressure to go up and down throughout the day. But if it stays up, you have high blood pressure. Another name for high blood pressure is hypertension.
Two numbers tell you your blood pressure. The first number is the systolic pressure (top number). It shows how hard the blood pushes when your heart is pumping. The second number is the diastolic pressure (bottom number). It shows how hard the blood pushes between heartbeats, when your heart is relaxed and filling with blood.
Your doctor will give you a goal for your blood pressure based on your health and your age. High blood pressure (hypertension) means that the top number stays high, or the bottom number stays high, or both.
High blood pressure increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other problems.
Experts don't fully understand the exact cause of high blood pressure. But they know that some things are linked to it. These include aging, drinking too much alcohol, eating a lot of sodium (salt), being overweight, and not exercising.
High blood pressure doesn't usually cause symptoms. Most people don't know they have it until they go to the doctor for some other reason. Very high blood pressure (such as 180/120 or higher) can cause severe headaches and vision problems.
During a routine visit, your doctor will measure your blood pressure. Your doctor may ask you to test it again when you are home.footnote 1, footnote 2 This is because your blood pressure can change throughout the day. To diagnose high blood pressure, your doctor needs to know if your blood pressure is high throughout the day.
The two types of treatment for high blood pressure are lifestyle changes and medicines. Your doctor may ask you to lose extra weight, eat less sodium, and be more active. If these lifestyle changes don't help enough, you may also need to take daily medicines.
A heart-healthy lifestyle can help you prevent high blood pressure. These changes are even more important if you have risk factors for high blood pressure that you can't change. These risk factors include race, age, and having others in your family who have high blood pressure.
Here are some things you can do.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Things that increase your risk (risk factors) for high blood pressure include:
Other possible risk factors include:
Here are some things you can do to help prevent high blood pressure.
When blood pressure is high, it starts to damage blood vessels, called arteries, and your heart. Damaged arteries can lead to problems throughout your body. The higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk.
This damage doesn't happen all at once. It happens slowly over time. But you can't tell that it's happening, because you don't feel anything.
High blood pressure can lead to:
High blood pressure makes your heart work harder. And that can lead to heart failure, which means your heart doesn't pump as much blood as your body needs.
High blood pressure can cause atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries." This problem happens when the inner lining of an artery is damaged. Fat and calcium can build up in the artery wall. This buildup is called plaque. Over time, plaque can cause problems throughout the body. These problems include coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Arteries also carry blood and oxygen to organs like your eyes and kidneys. If high blood pressure damages those arteries, it can lead to vision loss and kidney disease.
High blood pressure can also affect the arteries in your brain, raising the risk of dementia and a stroke caused by bleeding in the brain.
High blood pressure usually can't be cured. But it can be controlled. Lowering blood pressure lowers the risk of damaging blood vessels. To lower it, you may make lifestyle changes, take medicines each day, or both.
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. This may mean having symptoms that suggest that your blood pressure is causing a serious heart or blood vessel problem. Your blood pressure may be over 180/120.
For example, call 911 if:
Do not wait until your blood pressure comes down on its own. Get help right away.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate care if:
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
Your blood pressure can be checked:
During a routine visit, your doctor will measure your blood pressure. Your doctor also may ask you to test it again when you are at home.footnote 1, footnote 2 This is because your blood pressure can change throughout the day. Sometimes it's high only because you are seeing a doctor. This is called white-coat hypertension.
To diagnose high blood pressure, your doctor needs to know if your blood pressure is high throughout the day. You may get an ambulatory blood pressure monitor. This is a small device that you wear all of the time for a day or two. It records your blood pressure at certain times. Or you may check your blood pressure several times a day with a home blood pressure monitor.
Your doctor also may do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health.
Your care provider uses a blood pressure monitor to screen for high blood pressure. A blood pressure cuff is wrapped around your bare upper arm. The cuff is then pumped up. The cuff is slowly deflated, and the monitor shows your blood pressure numbers.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening adults age 18 and older for high blood pressure.footnote 2 You can get your blood pressure checked during any routine medical visit.
Your doctor can let you know how often you should get your blood pressure checked. It may depend on what your blood pressure is and your risk for heart disease. The USPSTF makes these recommendations:footnote 2
Children and teens typically have their blood pressure checked during routine checkups. Blood pressure checks typically start after age 3. After age 18, men and women can follow the adult screening guidelines.
The treatments for high blood pressure are lifestyle changes and daily medicines.
Treatment depends on how high your blood pressure is and if you have other health problems, like diabetes. It also depends on whether any organs have already been damaged. Your doctor also may check your risk for other problems, like heart attack and stroke.
Your doctor will give you a blood pressure goal based on your health and your age.
Your doctor will suggest making lifestyle changes. It may help to:
If these changes aren't enough to bring your blood pressure down to your goal, your doctor may recommend that you take pills.
Most people who take pills for high blood pressure need to take two or more kinds of pills that work together.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to try to lower your blood pressure. You can do this by making changes to your diet, getting more exercise, and losing weight if you need to. A heart-healthy lifestyle is always important, even if you take blood pressure medicines too.
For some people, lifestyle changes alone may be enough to lower their blood pressure.
Here are the key steps to lowering your blood pressure.
If you are overweight, losing as little as 10 lb (5 kg) may lower your blood pressure. It may also allow you to take less blood pressure medicine.
Getting enough of the nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products helps lower blood pressure. Use the DASH eating plan as a guide.
Try to limit how much sodium you eat to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day. Your doctor may ask you to try to eat less than 1,500 mg a day.
Regular physical activity can lower blood pressure in those who have high blood pressure. Try to do moderate activity at least 2½ hours a week. Or try to do vigorous activity at least 1¼ hours a week.
A home blood pressure monitor makes it easy to keep track of your blood pressure. Seeing those small improvements can motivate you to keep going with your lifestyle changes.
Smoking increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.
Alcohol can increase blood pressure. Drink it in moderation, if at all. That means no more than 2 drinks a day for men or 1 drink a day for women.
This includes prescription medicines (such as amphetamines and opioids) and illegal drugs (such as cocaine and methamphetamine). Your doctor can help you figure out what type of treatment is best for you.
Sometimes people find it hard to take their medicine as prescribed. They may feel it's too much trouble—especially when they don't feel sick. Or they may be worried about side effects. Some people find it hard to keep track of when and how to take their medicine. Work with your doctor to find the right medicine or combination of medicines that have the fewest side effects and work well for you.
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Doctors usually first prescribe a single, low-dose medicine for high blood pressure. If this doesn't work, your doctor may change the dosage or try a different medicine or combination of medicines. It's common to try several medicines before blood pressure is controlled. Many people need more than one medicine to get the best results.
You may have regular blood tests to monitor how the medicine is working in your body. Your doctor will likely let you know when you need to have the tests.
You may need to avoid some medicines that you can buy without a prescription. For example, check with your doctor before you take any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) if you are taking medicines for high blood pressure. NSAIDs include naproxen and ibuprofen. NSAIDs may raise blood pressure and keep your blood pressure medicines from working well. They may also interact with your blood pressure medicine and cause kidney problems.
The first medicines used may be:
Other medicines used include:
All of these medicines work well to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Complementary treatments haven't been proven to lower high blood pressure. But these treatments may be used to help manage stress and improve quality of life.
Tell your doctor if you use, or plan to use, complementary treatments to help manage your blood pressure. These treatments don't replace lifestyle changes or medicine for high blood pressure. You use this type of treatment in addition to your doctor's standard care. You and your doctor can decide which treatment might be best for you.
Complementary treatments include:
Most mind and body practices—such as acupuncture and yoga—are safe when used under the care of a well-trained professional. Choose an instructor or practitioner as carefully as you would choose a doctor.
Whelton PK, et al. (2017). Guideline for the prevention, detection, evaluation, and management of high blood pressure in adults: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, published online November 13, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.11.006. Accessed November 20, 2017.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2015). Hypertension in adults: Screening and home monitoring: Final recommendation statement. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/RecommendationStatementFinal/high-blood-pressure-in-adults-screening. Accessed January 21 , 2016.
Current as of:
January 10, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: January 10, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
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