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.
Despite what a lot of people think, high blood pressure usually doesn’t cause headaches or make you feel dizzy or lightheaded. It usually has no symptoms. But it does increase your risk of stroke, heart attack, and other problems. You and your doctor will talk about your risks of these problems based on your blood pressure.
Your doctor will give you a goal for your blood pressure. Your goal will be based on your health and your age.
Lifestyle changes, such as eating healthy and being active, are always important to help lower blood pressure. You might also take medicine to reach your blood pressure goal.
What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?
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.
How High Blood Pressure Damages Arteries
High blood pressure means that blood is pushing too hard against artery walls. The force of this blood can damage the heart and the delicate inner lining of the artery walls. This damage can lead to many health problems.
One problem is 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, kidneys, and brain. If high blood pressure damages those arteries, it can lead to vision loss, kidney disease, stroke, and a higher risk of dementia.
High blood pressure also 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.
What causes high blood pressure?
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.
How can you help prevent high blood pressure?
Here are some things you can do to help prevent high blood pressure.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Try to limit how much sodium you eat to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day. If you limit your sodium to 1,500 mg a day, you can lower your blood pressure even more.
- Buy foods that are labeled "unsalted," "sodium-free," or "low-sodium." Foods labeled "reduced-sodium" and "light sodium" may still have too much sodium.
- Flavor your food with garlic, lemon juice, onion, vinegar, herbs, and spices instead of salt. Do not use soy sauce, steak sauce, onion salt, garlic salt, mustard, or ketchup on your food.
- Use less salt (or none) when recipes call for it. You can often use half the salt a recipe calls for without losing flavor.
- Be physically active. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
- Limit alcohol to 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Eat less saturated and total fats.
How is high blood pressure diagnosed?
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. 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.
How is high blood pressure treated?
- Your doctor will suggest making lifestyle changes to help your heart. For example, your doctor may ask you to eat healthy foods, quit smoking, lose extra weight, and be more active.
- If lifestyle changes don’t help enough, your doctor may recommend that you take medicine.
- When blood pressure is very high, medicines are needed to lower it.
Caring for yourself when you have high blood pressure
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.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
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.
- Eat heart-healthy foods.
Getting enough of the nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products helps lower blood pressure. Use the DASH eating plan as a guide.
- Cut back on sodium.
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.
- Get active.
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.
- Check your blood pressure.
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.
- If you smoke, try to quit.
Smoking increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.
- Drink less alcohol.
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.
- If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.
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.
- If you take blood pressure medicine, take it exactly as prescribed.
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.
Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.