What Is High Blood Pressure? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a common disease that occurs when the pressure in your arteries is higher than it should be.

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood throughout the body. If left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, vision loss, and more, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

6 Ways to Prevent High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure may lead to stroke, heart attack, vision loss and sexual dysfunction among other things.
6 Ways to Prevent High Blood Pressure

Signs and Symptoms of High Blood Pressure

Most people with high blood pressure have no signs or symptoms of it. That’s why the condition has been dubbed a “silent killer.”

In rare cases, and if blood pressure reaches dangerous levels, a person may get headaches or more nosebleeds than normal, per the AHA.

Causes and Risk Factors of High Blood Pressure

The following can increase your chances of developing high blood pressure.

Older Age The risk of high blood pressure increases as you age; the older you are, the more likely you are to develop high blood pressure. According to the AHA, blood vessels gradually lose their elasticity over time, which can contribute to high blood pressure.

The risk of prehypertension and high blood pressure has been increasing in recent years in young people too, including children and teens, possibly because of the rise in obesity in these populations, reports the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Race According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high blood pressure is more common in Black American adults than in white, Asian, or Hispanic American adults.

Gender Men are more likely than women to be diagnosed with high blood pressure, until age 64, per the AHA.

 However, after that age, women are more likely to have high blood pressure.
Family History Having a family history of high blood pressure increases your risk, as the condition tends to run in families, reports the AHA.

Being Overweight The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. Per the Mayo Clinic, when the volume of blood pumping through your blood vessels increases, the pressure on your artery walls also rises.

Lack of Physical Activity People who are not active tend to have a higher heart rate and higher blood pressure than those who are physically active, according to the Mayo Clinic.

 Not exercising also increases the risk of being overweight.
Tobacco Use When you smoke or chew tobacco, your blood pressure rises temporarily, partly from the effects of nicotine. Moreover, chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls, which can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

 Being exposed to secondhand smoke may also increase your blood pressure.

Dietary Choices What you choose to eat (and not to eat) can increase your risk of hypertension, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Too much sodium can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure.
  • Since potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells, not getting enough of it can raise blood pressure.
Alcohol Consumption Over time, heavy alcohol use can damage the heart and lead to heart failure, stroke, and irregular heart rhythm. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. The AHA advises no more than two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women. One drink equals 12 ounces (oz) of beer, 4 oz of wine, 1.5 oz of 80-proof spirits, or 1 oz of 100-proof spirits.

Stress Being under intense stress can lead to a temporary increase in blood pressure, according to the AHA.

Moreover, if you try to cope with stress by overeating, using tobacco, or drinking alcohol, all of these can contribute to high blood pressure.
Chronic Conditions Having kidney disease, sleep apnea, or diabetes can affect blood pressure, per the Mayo Clinic.

Pregnancy Being pregnant can cause an increase in blood pressure. According to the CDC, high blood pressure occurs in 1 in every 12 to 17 pregnancies in women ages 20 to 44.

Birth Control Women who take birth control pills have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure. It’s more likely to occur when women are overweight, have had high blood pressure during a previous pregnancy, have a family history of blood pressure, smoke, or have mild kidney disease, according to the AHA.

Causes of Secondary Hypertension

When high blood pressure arises suddenly due to an identifiable condition, it’s called secondary hypertension.

Per the Mayo Clinic, the following conditions can lead to secondary hypertension, including:

  • Kidney problems
  • Adrenal gland tumors
  • Thyroid problems
  • Blood vessel defects
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Alcohol abuse or chronic alcohol use
  • Illegal drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines

Drugs That Can Cause High Blood Pressure

Medications that you take to control other health conditions, such as arthritis, epilepsy, or allergies, can cause your blood pressure to rise.

Such medications can also interfere with the ability of antihypertensive drugs to keep blood pressure down.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the drugs below are some of the ones that may negatively affect blood pressure.

Pain Medications Common pain and anti-inflammatory medicines can lead to the retention of water, which can increase blood pressure and create problems with the kidneys.

Examples include:

Antidepressants These drugs work by changing the body’s response to chemicals that affect mood. That can also lead to an increase in blood pressure.

Examples of antidepressants that may elevate blood pressure include:

Decongestants These medicines, which include common cough, cold, and allergy drugs, are known to raise blood pressure and to alter the effectiveness of blood pressure medication.

Examples include pseudoephedrine (Sudafed, Contac) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE).

Hormones Birth control pills can also affect blood pressure. Women who take birth control pills usually experience a small rise in systolic and diastolic blood pressure (the top and bottom numbers that are determined when you get your blood pressure checked).

Hormone therapy used to relieve symptoms of menopause can also cause a small rise in systolic blood pressure.

If you know you have high blood pressure but are considering hormone therapy, talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of undergoing hormone therapy, as well as the best ways to control your blood pressure.

Additionally, some recreational and illegal drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), and amphetamines, are also known to increase blood pressure.

How Is High Blood Pressure Diagnosed?

Blood pressure checks are part of routine doctor visits. To check your blood pressure, your healthcare provider will place an inflatable cuff around your arm and use a pressure-measuring gauge.

Before giving a diagnosis of high blood pressure, your physician will likely take two or three readings during separate appointments. Your physician may also ask you to keep a record of blood pressure measurements you take at home. That’s because blood pressure varies throughout the day, and some people may be anxious before or during a doctor visit, causing elevated blood pressure.

If your blood pressure is consistently 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) or higher, you will most likely be diagnosed with high blood pressure.

In 2017, the AHA updated its definition of high blood pressure from the previous definition of 140/90 mmHg or higher. The guidelines recommend earlier intervention to prevent further increases in blood pressure that could lead to health problems.

If you have high blood pressure, your physician will take a full medical history and conduct a physical exam. Other routine tests may be given, including a blood test, urine test, cholesterol test, and an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to check for signs of heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Duration of High Blood Pressure

The amount of time it takes to lower blood pressure varies depending on how high your blood pressure is and the aggressiveness of your treatment program. Medication can help lower blood pressure quickly, usually within a couple of days, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But because of potential side effects, a long-term aggressive medication regimen may not be sustainable.

Your doctor will prescribe lifestyle changes to lower your blood pressure too. Studies show that a healthy diet and regular exercise can begin to make a significant impact on blood pressure levels within three weeks, per the Mayo Clinic.

Treatment and Medication Options for High Blood Pressure

Most people who have high blood pressure will likely need lifelong treatment to help ward off or delay serious health problems brought on by the condition.

Options to treat high blood pressure may include eating a healthy diet with less salt, taking medication, and incorporating additional lifestyle changes. These include exercise, limiting alcohol intake, smoking cessation, and managing stress, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Medication Options

There are a variety of drugs available to treat hypertension. Some work by removing extra fluid and salt from your body to lower blood pressure; others slow down your heartbeat or relax and widen blood vessels.

For many people with high blood pressure, taking more than one medication in low doses is more effective than taking larger doses of a single drug.

According to the Mayo Clinic, depending on your past medical history and the severity of your hypertension, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following drugs:

  • Diuretics Sometimes called water pills, diuretics are typically the first line of treatment for high blood pressure. This medication helps the kidneys rid sodium and water from the body, decreasing the amount of fluid flowing through the veins and arteries, which in turn lowers blood pressure.
  • Beta-Blockers These medications reduce the workload of the heart and widen blood vessels. As a result, the heart beats slower and less forcefully. Beta blockers are often combined with other blood pressure medications.
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors (ACE Inhibitors) This class of drugs helps lower blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels, allowing blood to flow through the body more easily.
  • Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (ARBs) These medications block specific hormones from having any effect on the heart and blood vessels. This prevents blood pressure from rising.
  • Calcium Channel Blockers This type of medication interrupts the movement of calcium into the cells of blood vessels, thus relaxing the muscle cells in the blood vessels.
  • Renin Inhibitors These drugs slow the production of an enzyme called renin, which is made in the kidneys and can increase blood pressure. Renin inhibitors should not be taken with ACE inhibitors or ARBs.
  • Alpha-Blockers These medications lower blood pressure by blocking a hormone from tightening the muscles in the veins and arteries.
  • Alpha-Beta-Blockers This subclass of combined alpha- and beta-blockers slows the heart rate to reduce the amount of blood pumped through the blood vessels.
  • Central-Acting Agents These medications block signals from the brain that alert the nervous system to increase the heart rate and narrow the blood vessels.
  • Vasodilators These medications prevent the artery muscles from tightening and the arteries from narrowing.

Using Diet to Treat High Blood Pressure

People with high blood pressure should watch their sodium intake and stick to a healthy diet. Your doctor might recommend DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which is a diet that consists of foods that are low in sodium and cholesterol and rich in protein, fiber, and other nutrients, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Prevention of High Blood Pressure

The best way to prevent high blood pressure is to lead a healthy lifestyle. According to MedlinePlus, that includes:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Not smoking
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Reducing stress

Complications of High Blood Pressure

According to the AHA, if left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to the following:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack, angina, or both
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney disease or failure
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Vision loss
  • Sexual dysfunction

Research and Statistics: How Many People Have High Blood Pressure?

Hypertension is a very common condition, in developing countries as well as industrialized nations.

According to the CDC, nearly half of all adults in the United States have high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is more common in men than women, the CDC reports. About 50 percent of men in the United States have high blood pressure, compared with 44 percent of women.

Only 1 in 4 Americans with hypertension have the condition under control.

Black Americans and High Blood Pressure

According to the CDC, high blood pressure is more common in non-Hispanic Black American men and women than any other ethnic group.

 Fifty-six percent of non-Hispanic Black Americans have hypertension, compared with 48 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans, 46 percent of non-Hispanic Asian Americans, and 39 percent of Hispanic Americans. Black Americans also tend to develop hypertension earlier in life and experience more severe blood pressure elevation. Black American children are more likely than white children to have high blood pressure, according to the AHA.

It is not known for sure why high blood pressure is more common in this group, but researchers theorize it may be partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes among Black Americans, as well as a gene that makes Black Americans more sensitive to salt. According the AHA, in people who have this gene, even half a teaspoon of salt can elevate blood pressure by 5 mmHg.

Related Conditions and Causes of High Blood Pressure

There are certain conditions that may make a person more likely to develop high blood pressure. These include pregnancy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

Women can develop high blood pressure during pregnancy. When this happens after 20 weeks of pregnancy, it is known as gestational hypertension. This is a form of secondary hypertension caused by pregnancy, and it generally goes away after delivery, per the AHA.

If not treated, high blood pressure during pregnancy can lead to a number of complications for both the mother and the baby. Hypertension can affect a mother’s kidneys and lead to preeclampsia, as well as increase her risk of future heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.

According to the Mayo Clinic, preeclampsia increases the risk of preterm delivery, low birth weight, placental abruption, cesarean delivery, and HELLP syndrome (a complication that involves hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count).

PTSD and High Blood Pressure

A growing body of research has linked post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to high blood pressure.

Researchers aren’t sure about the mechanism underlying the relationship between PTSD and high blood pressure, but it may have something to do with higher levels of inflammation in patients with PTSD, which may increase blood pressure.

Since PTSD has a much higher incidence in military veterans, a study published in 2018 suggests that screening for high blood pressure should be routine not only in active soldiers who are at risk but also in those who are no longer active and receive care from Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Resources We Love

Favorite Organizations for Essential High Blood Pressure Information

American Heart Association

The AHA is the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting heart disease, as well as its major risk factors, including high blood pressure. The AHA funds lifesaving research and advocates for people affected by all heart-related issues. You can also find diet and lifestyle tips for getting your blood pressure under control.

Million Hearts

Million Hearts is a national initiative led by the CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Its goal is to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes within five years. It focuses on small steps people can take to reduce risk factors for these heart events, including blood pressure control.

Favorite Online Support Networks

Measure Up/Pressure Down

Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone in the struggle to lower your blood pressure. Read personal stories and connect with others who have decided to share their journey in controlling hypertension.

AHA’s Support Network

This online support group from the American Heart Association allows you to connect with others going through an array of heart issues, including hypertension. Ask questions, share your story, and get peer support from others going through similar experiences as they take control of their heart health.

Favorite Resources for Diet Advice

Low Salt Kitchen

Cutting sodium in your diet is an essential lifestyle change for getting your blood pressure under control. Check out the delicious low-salt recipes on this blog — they'll satisfy anyone looking to adhere to a low-sodium diet.

Favorite Apps

Blood Pressure Monitor

This app allows users to track their vital signs, as well as record details like medications, weight, and other health data. The app then generates charts that explain how aspects of your health and treatment plan interact. Blood Pressure Monitor is free on iOS.

Blood Pressure Companion

This app, available on iOS and Android, allows you to enter your blood pressure measurements and evaluate your numbers graphically over time. Easily share your readings with your doctor or family members and set reminders so you never forget to measure your BP and never miss a doctor’s appointment.

Favorite Website for High Blood Pressure Products

Consumer Reports

This well-known independent nonprofit organization rounds up and reviews the best home blood pressure monitors to help you keep track of your numbers and get them under control.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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