What happens when you have high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is determined by the amount of blood pumped by the heart and how easily blood flows through arteries. High blood pressure (hypertension) is when blood flows through your blood vessels with excessive force or pressure.
This is a common condition, but it shouldn’t be ignored. High blood pressure also increases the risk of heart disease.
Symptoms of severe high blood pressure can include:
Many of these symptoms don’t show until your blood pressure is dangerously high. It’s vital to regularly check your blood pressure to ensure your numbers stay within a healthy range.
Read on to learn what a healthy range is for adults, children, and pregnant women.
What’s considered high blood pressure?
Blood pressure readings have two numbers. The top one is your systolic number (the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart contracts). The bottom one is your diastolic number (the pressure in your arteries when your heart relaxes between beats). The two numbers together show whether your blood pressure is healthy or unhealthy. A high systolic (130 and over) or diastolic (80 and over) can count as high blood pressure. But healthy numbers may also be different for adults, children, and pregnant women.
High blood pressure in adults
Healthy blood pressure in adults is a reading below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. Blood pressure between 120 to 129 systolic and under 80 diastolic is considered elevated. Elevated blood pressure means you have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure later on. Your doctor may suggest eating less salt, eating a heart healthy diet, or living a more active lifestyle.
Stages of hypertension for adults
Talk to your doctor about medication if these are your blood pressure numbers.
|Systolic pressure||Diastolic pressure||Stages of hypertension|
|180 or over||120 or over||hypertensive crisis|
|over 140||over 90||stage 2|
|130 to 139||80 to 89||stage 1|
High blood pressure in children
High blood pressure can also affect children, from infants to teenagers. Unlike adults, there are specific healthy ranges for children based on age, height, and gender. These ranges are established based on healthy children’s blood pressure readings.
For example, here’s a range of healthy blood pressures if your child is of average height (50th percentile) for their age.
|1 to 3||85/37 to 104/60||86/40 to 102/62|
|4 to 6||93/50 to 109/69||91/52 to 107/69|
|7 to 10||97/57 to 114/74||96/57 to 114/73|
Talk to your doctor if your child’s blood pressure reading is higher.
High blood pressure in pregnant women
High blood pressure can also occur during pregnancy. Readings higher than 140 systolic or 90 diastolic is considered high. Normal blood pressure during pregnancy is less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic. About 8 percent of women develop some form of hypertension while pregnant, says the March of Dimes.
There are two main categories of high blood pressure in pregnancy:
- Chronic hypertension: This is when blood pressure is high before a woman becomes pregnant or when high blood pressure develops before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
- Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy: These types of high blood pressure problems are specific to pregnant women and typically develop after 20 weeks of pregnancy. These types of problems typically disappear after a woman gives birth.
Your doctor may prescribe medications if you have high blood pressure during pregnancy.
How to measure blood pressure
Usually a nurse checks your blood pressure to make sure it’s not too low or too high before your doctor’s appointment. But you can also check your readings manually at home. You can use an inflatable cuff similar to those used at your doctor’s office. Or you can use a digital blood pressure monitor with automatic cuff inflation.
Read the directions carefully when measuring your blood pressure. Certain factors can cause a temporary rise in blood pressure. These factors include:
For a more accurate reading:
- Take your blood pressure in a quiet location when you’re calm and relaxed.
- Don’t exercise, smoke, or have caffeine 30 minutes before measuring your blood pressure.
- It’s best to vary times of day that you take your pressure readings to see the range of your blood pressure.
Complications of high blood pressure
Untreated and uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and other organs, including your eyes, kidney, heart, and brain.
Complications of hypertension in adults and children include:
- heart attack
- heart failure
- kidney failure
- loss of vision
- difficulty thinking or memory problems
If you’re pregnant, high blood pressure complications may be:
- preeclampsia (high blood pressure and organ malfunction of the kidney, lungs, liver, or brain)
- eclampsia (high blood pressure; organ malfunction of the kidney, lungs, liver, or brain; and seizures)
- premature birth
- low birth weight
- placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the uterine wall before birth)
Treatment options for high blood pressure
A doctor may diagnose high blood pressure if your blood pressure average readings are consistently high on two or more separate appointments. Some people get white coat hypertension, meaning their blood pressure increases at doctor appointments because of nervousness. Let your doctor know if this is the case for you.
You can record your blood pressure at home over several days. If your results are consistently high, meaning over 120/80, schedule a follow-up appointment.
Medications are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure. These include:
- diuretics to remove excess sodium and water from your body
- beta-blockers to help control heart rate and relax blood vessels
- angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE) or angiotensin ll receptor blockers (ARB) to block certain substances that tighten blood vessels
- calcium channel blockers to relax muscles around your blood vessels and slow your heart rate
- alpha 1 blockers to block substances that tighten your blood vessels
- vasodilators to help relax muscles in the walls of the arteries
- alpha 2 agonists to relax your blood vessels
If an underlying medical condition causes hypertension, you’ll need to treat this condition to maintain a healthy blood pressure. For example, people with sleep apnea tend to develop high blood pressure. Treatment of sleep apnea with a CPAP machine can help to lower your high blood pressure due to sleep apnea. Another example is high blood pressure associated with obesity that improves after weight loss.
Let your doctor know if your treatment isn’t helping your blood pressure. You may have high blood pressure that is independent of an underlying medical condition. This type of high blood pressure is the most common type and is known as essential hypertension. Patients with essential hypertension will likely require lifelong medication to control it.
Prevention and self-care
Healthy lifestyle changes can help manage and prevent high blood pressure. Steps you can take include:
- eating a heart healthy, low sodium diet
- getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity three days a week
- quitting smoking as this can damage the walls of your blood vessel
- reducing consumption of alcohol
- maintaining a healthy body weight
- learning stress management techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, and meditation
- getting enough sleep at night, one study found that those with insomnia who sleep less than six hours a night are three times more likely to develop hypertension compared to those able to sleep more than six hours per night.
It’s difficult to prevent high blood pressure disorders during pregnancy. But you can lower your risk of developing this type of high blood pressure by maintaining a healthy weight before and after pregnancy as well as by eating healthy and staying active during pregnancy.
When to see a doctor for high blood
Call your doctor if you have high blood pressure and:
- shortness of breath
- excessive sweating
- vision problems
- chest pain
- blood in the urine
These symptoms can be serious complications to high blood pressure or other serious medical problems and require urgent medical attention.
Measuring your blood pressure is part of your checkup routine:
- If you’re 18 years old or older, ask your doctor about your blood pressure reading every two years.
- When you’re 40 years or older, you’ll want to check your reading every year.
You may need more frequent blood pressure checks at any age based on health conditions. Some health care clinics also do free blood pressure screenings. You may also schedule an appointment at your local pharmacy.