Doctor and Patient

Updated December 30, 2020

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a common condition among American adults. And it’s one of the most significant risk factors for heart disease and serious complications such as heart attack and stroke.

High blood pressure is very common and potentially dangerous. However, it often does not cause noticeable symptoms that are severe enough to prompt a visit to your doctor. Here’s what you need to know about high blood pressure, its symptoms, and how it is treated.

What is High Blood Pressure?

When your doctor checks your blood pressure, he or she measures the force your blood exerts as it pushes against the walls of your arteries.

Blood pressure readings are usually given as two numbers — 120 over 80 for example — and written as 120/80 mmHg. The top number is called the systolic blood pressure and the bottom is called the diastolic blood pressure. One or both of these numbers can be too high.

It is normal for your blood pressure to fluctuate based on the time of day. With that in mind:

  • If your blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg or most of the time, it is considered to be normal.
  • If your blood pressure is 140/90 mmHg or higher most of the time, it is considered high blood pressure or hypertension.
  • If your blood pressure is over 120/80 mmHg, but below 140/90 mmHg most of the time, it is considered pre-hypertension.

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Hypertension Risk Factors

There are many factors that affect blood pressure including:

  • The amount of salt and water in your body
  • Your hormone levels
  • The condition of your kidneys, nervous system, or blood vessels

You Have an Increased Risk of High Blood Pressure if You:

  • Are of Black American descent
  • Have a family history of high blood pressure
  • Have diabetes
  • Are a smoker
  • Are obese
  • Drink too much alcohol (more than one drink per day for women; more than two drinks per day for men)
  • Consume too much salt in your diet
  • Are often stressed or anxious

What Are the Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure often does not cause noticeable symptoms. As a result, many people don’t realize they have high blood pressure until they visit their doctor’s office for an unrelated health issue — or until they experience a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.

However, very high blood pressure of 180/120 or greater is a medical emergency called a hypertensive crisis. If you are having a hypertensive crisis, you may have symptoms including:

  • Blurry vision or other vision problems
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Severe headaches
  • Nosebleed
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • A feeling of anxiety or that something is not right

If you have any of these symptoms, you should call 911 or visit the nearest hospital emergency department right away.

Why is High Blood Pressure Dangerous?

High blood pressure is dangerous because it adds to your heart’s workload, and over time, your heart may become enlarged and not be able to meet your body’s needs.

High blood pressure also affects your arteries. The arteries harden as we get older, and high blood pressure accelerates this process. Sometimes hardened arteries can become narrowed by a buildup of plaque. This condition is called atherosclerosis. If left unchecked, this can lead to chest pain, heart disease, heart attack, or even death.

How Can I Find Out if I Have High Blood Pressure?

Having your blood pressure checked regularly is the first step. If you have normal blood pressure, you should have it checked at least once a year. If your blood pressure is elevated or if you are being treated for hypertension, you should have it checked more often.

Checking your blood pressure using a home monitor and keeping track of your results over time may help you identify it more quickly. However, it is a good idea to bring your home blood pressure monitor to your doctor’s office so he or she can make sure it is accurate and works properly.

What Can I do About High Blood Pressure?

The good news is that high blood pressure is preventable, treatable, and there are many things you can do to control your blood pressure including:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet and drinking plenty of water.
  • Exercising regularly, reducing stress, and maintaining a healthy body weight.
  • Limiting your salt and alcohol intake.
  • Quitting smoking.

Research shows that making these lifestyle changes can lower your blood pressure by 10-20 mmHg or more. Blood pressure in the elevated range of 120/80 to 129/80 — and even mildly high blood pressure — can sometimes return to normal in response to lifestyle changes alone.

If you think you may have or be at risk for high blood pressure, consult your primary care physician or visit UPMC’s Heart and Vascular Institute.

Learn more about your heart health by attending a free heart screening event.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine.