High blood pressure is often associated with few or no symptoms. Many people have it for years without knowing it. However, just because high blood pressure is often symptomless doesn't mean it is harmless. In fact, uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension, causes damage to your arteries. High blood pressure is also a risk factor for stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular problems.
High blood pressure is generally a chronic condition. There are two major categories of high blood pressure (hypertension): secondary hypertension and primary hypertension.
- Secondary hypertension is high blood pressure that is the direct result of a separate health condition.
- Primary hypertension (or essential hypertension) is high blood pressure that doesn’t result from a specific cause, but instead, develops gradually over time. Many such cases are attributed to hereditary factors.
Typically, the only way to know you have it is to get your blood pressure tested.
Rare High Blood Pressure Symptoms
Rarely, people with chronic high blood pressure might have symptoms such as:
- dull headaches
- dizzy spells
- frequent nosebleeds
Emergency High Blood Pressure Symptoms
When symptoms do occur, it is usually only when blood pressure spikes suddenly and extremely enough to be considered a medical emergency. This is called a hypertensive crisis.
Hypertensive crisis (usually due to secondary high blood pressure) is defined as a blood pressure reading of 180 or above for the systolic pressure (first number) or 110 or above for the diastolic pressure (second number). If you are checking your own blood pressure and get a reading that high, wait a few minutes and then check again to make sure the first reading was accurate. Other symptoms of a hypertensive crisis may include:
- severe headache
- severe anxiety
- shortness of breath
After waiting a few minutes, if your second blood pressure reading is still 180 or above, don't wait to see whether your blood pressure comes down on its own. Call 911 immediately. If that isn't an option, have someone drive you to the emergency room.
Emergency hypertensive crisis can result in severe complications, including fluid in the lungs, brain swelling or bleeding, a tear in the heart's main artery, stroke, or seizures for pregnant women with eclampsia.
In Pregnant Women
In some cases, high blood pressure can occur during pregnancy. The cause can be a number of factors, including:
- being inactive
- smoking and alcohol
- family history of kidney problems or hypertension
- IVF and other pregnancy-related assistance
- being over 40 years of age
- carrying more than one child (e.g., twins)
- first-time pregnancy
If high blood pressure continues after 20 weeks of pregnancy, complications such as preeclampsia may arise. Preeclampsia can cause damage to organs and the brain, which can bring on fatal seizures.
Symptoms of this are protein in urine samples, constant headaches, and excessive swelling of the hands and feet.
High blood pressure during pregnancy can cause the baby to be born prematurely, detach from the placenta, or require a cesarean delivery.
In most cases, the blood pressure will return to normal after giving birth.
Complications and Risks
Over time, untreated high blood pressure can cause heart disease and related complications such as heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
Other potential problems are:
- vision loss
- kidney damage
- erectile dysfunction
- fluid buildup in the lungs
- memory loss
There are a number of treatments for high blood pressure, ranging from lifestyle changes, weight loss, and medication. Doctors will determine the plan on whether you have high blood pressure of hypertension.
Healthy eating is an effective way to help lower high blood pressure. It is recommended to eat foods low in sodium and salt, and high in potassium.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is a food plan prescribed by doctors to keep blood pressure in order. The focus is on low-sodium and low-cholesterol foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Some heart-healthy foods include:
- apples, bananas, and oranges
- broccoli and carrots
- fish rich in omega-3 fatty oils
Foods to avoid are:
- foods and drinks high in sugar
- red meat
- coconut oil
It is also suggested to not consume excess alcohol while trying to manage high blood pressure. Men should drink no more than two drinks a day. Women should drink no more than one drink.
Physical activity is another important lifestyle change for managing high blood pressure. Doing aerobics and cardio a few times a week are simple exercises to add to a healthy heart routine. These exercises will get the blood pumping.
With good eating and exercise comes a healthy weight. Proper weight management helps lower cholesterol and high blood pressure. Other risks caused by being overweight are also decreased.
Another way to treat high blood pressure is by trying to eliminate and avoid stress. Stress will raise blood pressure. Try different methods of stress relief such as exercise, meditation, or music.
There are a variety of medications that can be used to treat high blood pressure if lifestyle changes alone are not helping. Most cases will require up to two different medications.
- Water or fluid pills (called diuretics) wash out excess sodium from the body. These are most often used with another pill.
- Beta-blockers slow the heartbeat. This helps less blood flow through the veins.
- Calcium channel blockers relax the blood cells by blocking calcium from going inside the muscle cells of heart and blood vessels.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors help relax and narrow blood vessels.
- Alpha blockers cause blood to flow freely by keeping nerves from tightening the blood vessels.
- Alpha plus beta-blockers work the same way, but they also slow the heartbeat down.
- Central acting agents make the brain decrease nerve signals that tell the blood vessels to narrow.
When to See Your Doctor
Call your doctor if any of the treatments are not working to lower high blood pressure after two or three readings. No change can be the result of another problem occurring with the high blood pressure.
You should also call your doctor if you experience:
- blurry vision
- shortness of breath
These can also be the symptoms of something else or a negative effect from the medication. In this instance, another medicine may need to be prescribed to replace the one causing discomfort.
Find a doctor
Looking for doctors with the most experience treating hypertension? Use the doctor search tool below, powered by our partner Amino. You can find the most experienced doctors, filtered by your insurance, location, and other preferences. Amino can also help book your appointment for free.
Once you have high blood pressure, you are expected to monitor and treat it for the rest of your life. There is a chance the high blood pressure returns to normal, but it is uncommon. Lifestyle changes and medicine are expected to continue in order to maintain a goal pressure in the blood. Treatment will also greatly lower the chance of heart attack, stroke, and other heart disease-related complications.
With careful attention and proper monitoring, you can lead a healthy life.