What is High Blood Pressure? Symptoms and Causes

Article | April 2020

What is High Blood Pressure? Symptoms and Causes

Learn about the causes, symptoms, and common treatments for high blood pressure.

What is high blood pressure?

  • High blood pressure is also known as hypertension
  • Blood pressure is a measure of how hard your blood pushes against your artery walls as it moves through your body.
  • It’s normal for blood pressure to go up and down throughout the day, but if it stays up, you have high blood pressure.

Your blood pressure consists of 2 numbers:

The first number measures the force as your heart beats. This is called systolic pressure.

The second number measures the force as your heart relaxes. This is called diastolic pressure. Someone with a systolic pressure of 120 and a diastolic pressure of 80 has a blood pressure of 120/80, or “120 over 80.”

An ideal blood pressure for an adult is less than 120/80. You have high blood pressure if your top number is 130 or higher, or your bottom number is 80 or higher, or both.

What are the main causes of high blood pressure?

In most cases, doctors can’t point to the exact cause of high blood pressure. However, several things are known to raise blood pressure, including:

  • Age: The risk for high blood pressure rises as you age. Through early middle age, high blood pressure is more common in men. Women are more likely to develop it after menopause.
  • Family history
  • Being overweight or obese: The more you weigh, the more blood you need to bring nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood goes up, so does the pressure against artery walls.
  • Not being physically active: Inactive people tend to have faster heart rates. That makes the force of blood against your arteries harder.
  • Using tobacco: Tobacco use immediately raises your blood pressure on a temporary basis. In addition, the chemicals in tobacco can damage the lining of your artery walls.
  • Too much salt
  • Too little potassium
  • Too little vitamin D
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Stress: High levels of stress can lead to a temporary, but dramatic, rise in blood pressure.
  • Certain chronic conditions: Including high cholesterol, diabetes, kidney disease, and sleep apnea.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

High blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, and other problems. High blood pressure is called a “silent killer,” because it doesn’t usually cause symptoms while it’s causing this damage. Most people don’t know they have it until they go to the doctor for some other reason.

Very high blood pressure can cause some symptoms, such as headaches, dizzy spells, or more nosebleeds than normal. But these signs don’t usually occur until it reaches a severe stage. By the time these signs appear, high blood pressure may be life-threatening.

Because there are usually no symptoms, it’s important to have your blood pressure measured regularly.

How is high blood pressure treated?

Changing your lifestyle can help ease high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, be sure to talk with your doctor about taking these steps:

  • Eat healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy foods. Get plenty of potassium. Cut your intake of saturated fat and total fat.
  • Cut the salt in your diet. Try to keep your salt intake to 1,500 milligrams a day. There's already a lot of salt in many foods. Watch the salt content in processed foods, such as canned soups or frozen dinners.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, losing even 5 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Limit your alcohol. That means 1 drink a day for women and people older than 65, and 2 a day for men.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Manage stress. Practice healthy coping skills, such as muscle relaxation and deep breathing. Try to get plenty of sleep.
  • Monitor your blood pressure at home.

Many people need the help of medicines. Sometimes, lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to control high blood pressure. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to keep it at a safer level. There are many types of medicines available that work in different ways to lower blood pressure. Some relax blood vessels to make it easier for the blood to flow through. Some help your body get rid of excess salt and water. This reduces the volume of blood to help lower blood pressure. Other medicines cause your heart to beat more slowly. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of medicines. Often, 2 or more together work better than just 1.

More Information

For more about high blood pressure, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Senior couple checking blood pressure at home