High Blood Pressure: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Lower It

Medically Reviewed By Madeline Knott, MD
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High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when blood flowing through the arteries creates too much force. It can occur suddenly or increase over time. It is possible to have high blood pressure without realizing it. Regularly checking your blood pressure can help you to stay on top of your blood pressure, which in turn will help to reduce your risk of serious complications.

Read on to learn more about high blood pressure readings and how to lower your blood pressure naturally. This guide also includes information about other treatments, causes, and symptoms of high blood pressure.

Key information about high blood pressure

  • You can have high blood pressure without realizing it.
  • A high blood pressure reading is 130/80 mm Hg or higher.
  • High blood pressure affects around 47% of adults in the United States.
  • A blood pressure reading of 180/120 mm Hg is a medical emergency.
  • Lifestyle changes, the DASH diet, and medication can help to lower blood pressure.

Read the full article and visit our high blood pressure hub for more information.

What is a high blood pressure reading?

a man is getting his blood pressure taken with a cuff
Dimitrije Tanaskovic/Stocksy United

Blood pressure measurements include two readings. The systolic reading appears on the top and diastolic on the bottom. These measurements are in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

The systolic measurement refers to how much pressure your blood exerts against the artery walls each time your heart beats.

The diastolic measurement refers to how much pressure your blood exerts against the artery walls when the heart is resting.

See the table below for information about what optimal, elevated, and high blood pressure readings look like.

Systolic readingDiastolic reading
optimal90–120 mm Hg60–80 mm Hg
elevated120–129 mm Hgless than 80 mm Hg
stage 1 high blood pressure130–139 mm Hg80–89 mm Hg
stage 2 high blood pressure140 mm Hg or higher90 mm Hg or higher
hypertensive crisis180 mm Hg or higher120 mm Hg or higher

For your blood pressure to be high, you only need to have either a high systolic reading or a high diastolic reading. Both readings do not need to be high for high blood pressure. Learn more.

Contact your doctor if you have high blood pressure. You should seek immediate medical attention if your blood pressure reading suggests a hypertensive crisis.

How common is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is a common condition. It affects around 47% of adults in the U.S., which is around 116 million people.

However, only around 24% of adults with hypertension are in control of the condition.

High blood pressure can be a serious condition. In 2019, it was the primary cause or contributing factor in 516,955 deaths.

What causes high blood pressure?

In most cases, the exact cause of high blood pressure is not always clear. There are two types of high blood pressure, each with different causes:

  • Primary high blood pressure occurs gradually over time. This is the most common type of high blood pressure.
  • Secondary high blood pressure happens alongside certain medical conditions or as a side effect of some medications.

Possible risk factors that can cause primary high blood pressure include:

  • aging
  • not getting enough exercise
  • drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • having too much caffeine
  • eating a diet rich in sodium
  • not getting enough potassium
  • not sleeping enough
  • being of a certain race, as high blood pressure is more common among African American and Hispanic individuals

Possible causes of secondary high blood pressure include:

  • medications, such as:
    • antidepressants
    • decongestants
    • hormonal birth control pills
    • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • chronic kidney disease
  • metabolic syndrome
  • certain tumors
  • thyroid problems
  • sleep apnea
  • obesity

If you have primary high blood pressure, your doctor may advise lifestyle changes. In some cases, they may prescribe medication to help lower your blood pressure. Secondary high blood pressure is usually treatable by managing the underlying health condition or changing the contributing medication.

Is high blood pressure genetic?

Experts believe that genes might play a role in your risk of high blood pressure. However, as families can have similar lifestyles, it is not clear whether heredity is a key factor in developing high blood pressure.

Hypertensive crisis

Contact your doctor immediately if your blood pressure is 180/120 mm Hg or higher.

You may be experiencing a hypertensive emergency if you also have the following symptoms:

Do not wait for your blood pressure to come down. Seek immediate medical attention.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

High blood pressure does not always present any noticeable symptoms. This means that it is important to regularly check your blood pressure either at home or in your doctor’s office.

How do I lower high blood pressure?

If you have secondary high blood pressure, which occurs as a result of a health condition or medication, the main focus is to treat or remove that underlying cause. If you follow a treatment plan for the contributing health condition, or if you change to a different type of medication, your blood pressure should become lower.

However, if you have primary high blood pressure, which occurs gradually over time, treatment focuses on lifestyle changes. Your doctor may also prescribe medication.

Natural ways to lower blood pressure

Steps you can take to naturally lower your blood pressure include:

  • avoiding alcohol or reducing your intake
  • exercising regularly
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • managing stress
  • getting enough sleep
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet

Discover weight loss exercises that could help improve blood pressure in some people.

Medication to lower blood pressure

Your doctor may prescribe medication to help lower high blood pressure. These can include:

  • angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to reduce how narrow blood vessels are
  • angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) to prevent the narrowing of blood vessels
  • beta-blockers to slow down your heart rate so that less blood pumps through your blood vessels
  • calcium channel blockers to prevent calcium from entering heart muscle cells and blood vessels
  • diuretics such as thiazide to remove excess sodium and water from your body

Find out more about medication commonly prescribed for high blood pressure.

What is the DASH diet?

Following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan can help to minimize your risk of high blood pressure. It involves eating a healthy, balanced diet while consuming less sodium.

It can also help you maintain a moderate weight, which can further reduce your risk of high blood pressure.

Foods to incorporate into your DASH diet include:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • fat-free or low fat milk
  • whole grains
  • beans
  • poultry
  • fish
  • seeds
  • nuts
  • foods rich in nutrients, such as:
    • potassium
    • magnesium
    • calcium
    • protein
    • fiber

Foods to avoid with the DASH diet include:

  • foods high in sodium
  • red meats
  • foods and drinks with added sugar
  • saturated fats
  • trans fats

Contact your doctor for guidance before making significant changes to your diet.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about high blood pressure. They will be able to take your blood pressure for you and advise on the best treatments for lowering your blood pressure if necessary.

If you have a home blood pressure monitor and you have a high blood pressure reading, wait 5 minutes and then take the reading again. If your blood pressure is still high, contact your doctor for advice.

Seek immediate medical help if your blood pressure is 180/120 mm Hg or greater and you have any of the following symptoms:

Learn more about when to contact a doctor for high blood pressure.

How is high blood pressure diagnosed?

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute advises that you should visit a medical professional to check your blood pressure at least once per year.

Your doctor will use a blood pressure monitor and blood pressure cuff or a stethoscope to check your blood pressure. It is a straightforward test that takes very little time.

Once they have your blood pressure reading, your doctor will advise on whether the reading is low, high, or optimal. If you have high blood pressure, they will recommend steps you can take to lower your blood pressure.

In order to get as accurate a result as possible, it is important that you try to relax before and during your appointment. It is possible that the reading in the doctor’s office is higher than any readings you take yourself at home, as feelings of nervousness might increase your blood pressure. This is called white coat hypertension.

Take along any blood pressure readings you have taken with a home blood pressure monitor. Your doctor can compare these against the reading they take.

What are the complications of high blood pressure?

If you have persistent high blood pressure that you do not treat or control, it can lead to further health complications.

Complications of high blood pressure include:

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about high blood pressure. They will help you devise a plan of steps you can take to lower your blood pressure to reduce the risk of complications.

Learn more about the possible complications of high blood pressure.

Can I prevent high blood pressure?

There are steps that you can take to prevent high blood pressure.

If you have secondary high blood pressure, treating the underlying health condition or changing medications will help to prevent high blood pressure.

Lifestyle changes can help to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. These are the same as the steps you can take to naturally reduce blood pressure, such as:

  • consuming a healthy, balanced diet, such as the DASH diet
  • reducing your intake of, or avoiding, alcohol
  • getting regular exercise
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • quitting smoking
  • reducing and managing stress
  • ensuring you get enough quality sleep

Contact your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more frequently asked questions about high blood pressure.

What is the most popular medication for high blood pressure?

The type of medication your doctor may prescribe for high blood pressure can differ for each person. Some common medications your doctor may prescribe for high blood pressure include:

What can cause temporary high blood pressure?

Stress can cause temporary high blood pressure. When you feel stressed, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones. This results in a temporary spike in your blood pressure.

How can you lower high blood pressure immediately?

If you experience a spike in your blood pressure, you can take steps to temporarily immediately lower your blood pressure. This includes:

  • relaxing in a warm bath
  • doing breathing exercises
  • doing stretching exercises
  • meditating

If you have high blood pressure, it is important that you put measures in place to lower your blood pressure on a more permanent, long-term basis.

If your blood pressure is 180/120 mm Hg or higher, seek immediate medical help. Do not wait for your blood pressure to lower.

Can drinking water lower blood pressure?

Consuming enough water is important for the overall health of your heart. Experts suggest that adding minerals such as magnesium and calcium to water may also be beneficial in lowering high blood pressure. To further understand this relationship, more research is necessary.

Learn more

Visit our high blood pressure hub for more articles and information.

Summary

High blood pressure occurs when there is too much force from the blood flowing through your arteries. Primary high blood pressure occurs gradually over time, while secondary high blood pressure can happen more suddenly as a side effect of medication or due to an underlying health condition.

It is possible to lower high blood pressure either by treating the underlying medical cause or by making lifestyle changes. This can include reducing your sodium intake, maintaining a moderate weight, and getting regular exercise.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about high blood pressure. A high blood pressure reading is typically 130/80 mm Hg or higher. A reading of 180/120 mm Hg or higher is a medical emergency.

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Medical Reviewer: Madeline Knott, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 31
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.