What is high blood pressure?

"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.

You can have high blood pressure, or hypertension, and still feel just fine. That’s because high blood pressure does not cause signs of illness that you can see or feel. But, high blood pressure is a major health problem.

High blood pressure (HBP) is a serious condition that can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and other health problems.

High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, but it can cause serious problems such as stroke, heart failure, heart attack and kidney failure. You can control high blood pressure through healthy lifestyle habits and taking medicines, if needed.

What are some other terms used to describe high blood pressure?

High blood pressure (HBP) also is called hypertension.

When HBP has no known cause, it may be called essential hypertension, primary hypertension, or idiopathic hypertension.

When another condition causes HBP, it's sometimes called secondary high blood pressure or secondary hypertension.

In some cases of HBP, only the systolic blood pressure number is high. This condition is called isolated systolic hypertension (ISH). Many older adults have this condition. ISH can cause as much harm as HBP in which both numbers are too high.

What is normal blood pressure?

A blood pressure reading below 120/80 mmHg is considered normal. In general, lower is better.

What do the terms systolic and diastolic refer to?

Your blood pressure is highest when your heart beats, pumping the blood. This is called systolic pressure.

When your heart is at rest, between beats, your blood pressure falls. This is the diastolic pressure.

So basically, the pressure of blood against the artery walls when your heart beats is called systolic pressure. The pressure between beats when your heart relaxes is called diastolic pressure.

What do the blood pressure reading numbers mean?


Your blood pressure reading uses two numbers, the systolic and diastolic pressures (see above for more info). Usually they are written one above or before the other.


A reading of 120/80 or lower is normal blood pressure

140/90 or higher is high blood pressure

Between 120 and 139 for the top number, or between 80 and 89 for the bottom number is prehypertension


If your blood pressure is 120/80, you say that it is "120 over 80." 

What are the risk factors for developing high blood pressure?

Your chances of getting high blood pressure are higher if you:      

  •        are overweight or obese        
  •        are a man over the age of 45 or a woman over the age of 55      
  •        have a family history of high blood pressure        
  •        have pre-hypertension, a reading of 120-139/80-89 mmHg.

Other things that increase your chances of developing high blood pressure are: 


  •        eating too much sodium (salt)        
  •        drinking too much alcohol        
  •        being physically inactive        
  •        smoking        
  •        not getting enough potassium in your diet        
  •        taking certain medicines, such as some antacids and hormone therapy (women)        
  •        having long-lasting stress.

How can I prevent high blood pressure?

You can take steps to prevent high blood pressure by adopting a healthy lifestyle. For example, you can:      

  •        maintain a healthy weight, and lose weight if you are overweight or obese        
  •        be physically active get at least 2 and one-half hours of moderate physical activity each week        
  •        follow a healthy eating plan like DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which emphasizes fruits,        vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts, and choose and prepare foods with less sodium (salt)        
  •        if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation; women should have no more than one drink a day, and  men should have no more than two drinks a day.        
  •        quit smoking, if you smoke        
  •        learn to cope with and manage stress.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is known as “the silent killer” because it does not produce any symptoms.  The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure measured.


How is high blood pressure diagnosed?

You must have your blood pressure measured to determine whether you have high blood pressure or not.

Having your blood pressure measured is quick and easy. Your doctor or nurse will use some type of gauge, a stethoscope or electronic sensor, and a blood pressure cuff, also called a sphygmomanometer.

Why is it so important to control my blood pressure? 

High blood pressure is often called "the silent killer" because it usually has no symptoms. Occasionally, headaches may occur. Some people may not find out they have high blood pressure until they have trouble with their hearts, kidneys, or eyes. When high blood pressure is not diagnosed and treated, it can lead to other life-threatening conditions, including heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and kidney failure. It can also lead to vision changes or blindness.

High blood pressure can cause:      

  •        your heart to work too hard and become larger or weaker, which can lead to heart failure        
  •        small bulges (aneurysms) to worsen in your blood vessels. Common locations for aneurysms are the aorta, which is the main artery from the heart; the arteries in your brain, legs, and intestines; and the artery leading to your spleen.        
  •        blood vessels in your kidneys to narrow, which can cause kidney failure, and blood vessels in your eyes to burst or bleed, which may cause vision changes and can result in blindness.        
  •        arteries throughout your body to "harden" faster, especially those in your heart, brain, kidneys, and legs. This can cause a heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure.

How is high blood pressure treated?

If you have high blood pressure, you will need to treat it and control it for life. This means making lifestyle changes, and, in some cases, taking prescribed medicines, and getting ongoing medical care.

Treatment can help control blood pressure, but it will not cure high blood pressure, even if your blood pressure readings appear normal. If you stop treatment, your blood pressure and risk for related health problems will rise. For a healthy future, follow your treatment plan closely. Work with your health care team for lifelong blood pressure control.

Blood pressure medicines work in different ways to lower blood pressure. Some drugs lower blood pressure by removing extra fluid and salt from your body. Others affect blood pressure by slowing down the heartbeat, or by relaxing and widening blood vessels. Often, two or more drugs work better than one.

Here are the types of medicines used to treat high blood pressure.

      Diuretics are sometimes called "water pills." They work by helping your kidneys flush excess water and salt from your body. This reduces the amount of fluid in your blood, and your blood pressure goes down. There are different types of diuretics. They are often given with other high blood pressure medicines and may be combined with another medicine in one pill.


      Beta blockers cause your heart to beat more slowly and with less force. Your heart pumps less blood through the blood vessels, and your blood pressure goes down.


      Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors keep your body from making a hormone called angiotensin II, which normally causes blood vessels to narrow. ACE inhibitors prevent this narrowing so your blood pressure goes down.


      Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBS) are blood pressure drugs that protect your blood vessels from angiotensin II. They make the blood vessels relax and become wider, and your blood pressure goes down.


      Calcium channel blockers (CCBs) keep calcium from entering the muscle cells of your heart and blood vessels. This causes blood vessels to relax, and your blood pressure goes down.


      Vasodilators open blood vessels by directly relaxing the muscle in the vessel walls, causing blood pressure to go down.


      Alpha blockers reduce nerve impulses that tighten blood vessels, allowing blood to pass more easily and causing blood pressure to go down.


      Alpha-beta blockers reduce nerve impulses to blood vessels the same way alpha blockers do, but they also slow the heartbeat, as beta blockers do. As a result, blood pressure goes down.


      Nervous system inhibitors relax blood vessels by controlling nerve impulses from the brain. This causes blood vessels to become wider and blood pressure to go down.

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