When to See a Doctor for High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is often referred to as the “silent killer” because it has no symptoms, but it can put your health and life at serious risk. Blood pressure measures the force of your blood pushing against your arteries as it circulates in your body. If it’s high, it can damage the vessels over time, causing tiny tears that trap plaque and lead to blockages. Hypertension increases your risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke and other organ damage.
More than 100 million Americans—almost 1 in 3 have high blood pressure. If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, you can work with your doctor to control it and avoid serious health consequences.
High blood pressure that develops gradually is called primary hypertension. It may not be possible to know the cause, but there are risk factors associated with it, including these lifestyle choices:
- Unhealthy diet: Too much sodium (table salt) and not enough of the mineral potassium, which is found in high levels in bananas, potatoes, beans and yogurt, causes your body to retain fluid. Extra fluid in your blood vessels increases pressure within them and, with time, also makes your heart work harder to pump the blood.
- Obesity: Excess fat and weight makes your heart work harder to get blood and oxygen to your body, which can overload your cardiovascular system, leading to high blood pressure.
- Tobacco: Nicotine raises blood pressure and smoke produces carbon dioxide that lowers the oxygen in your blood. To get enough oxygen-rich blood to your body, your heart has to work harder, which also raises your blood pressure.
Excess Alcohol: Drinking raises your blood pressure. Current recommendations are no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men.
- Inactivity: A sedentary lifestyle can raise your heart rate, which taxes your heart and raises your blood pressure.
High blood pressure can also be caused by some chronic health conditions, which is called secondary hypertension. It tends to come on more quickly, and can be due to such health concerns as kidney disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, and thyroid problems. Some medications, including birth control pills, pain relievers, and cold remedies can also cause hypertension.
Your primary care provider will check your blood pressure regularly, and if you do have high blood pressure, they can advise you about lifestyle changes that can help bring it down. If your doctor prescribes medication, make sure you take it as directed.
Talk with your doctor about one or more of these options:
- Changing your eating habits, including lowering your salt intake and increasing potassium.
- If you are overweight, make a plan to lose excess body fat.
- If you use tobacco, stop. Get help to quit if you need it.
- Limit alcohol use.
- Exercise regularly. If you have been inactive, discuss a plan to increase your activity with your healthcare provider.
- Know your blood pressure numbers and keep track of changes with a home blood pressure monitor, but make sure to use it correctly.
Only half of the millions of people with high blood pressure have it under control, even though lifestyle and medication can be very effective in controlling it and avoiding serious health consequences.
Healthcare providers usually measure your blood pressure during regular office visits. If you don’t know your blood pressure, ask your provider to tell you what it is. You will often need more than one reading to establish whether or not you have hypertension. You may also want to purchase your own blood pressure monitor to record more frequent readings.
Blood pressure measurements include two numbers. The first number is called systolic pressure, which measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number, called diastolic pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats.
Normal blood pressure is 120/80 or lower.
Stage 1 high blood pressure is 130/80.
Stage 2 high blood pressure is 140/90.
A blood pressure reading of 180/100 is a hypertensive crisis, which can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical treatment. You may have no symptoms, though some people have a headache, shortness of breath, or a nosebleed. If you check your own blood pressure and it is at 180/120, check it again in five minutes. If you get a similar reading, call 911.
If you have high blood pressure, you will not know if it is damaging your cardiovascular system. Follow your doctor’s advice carefully and go to your follow-up appointments.
Your primary healthcare provider can diagnose high blood pressure and help you with medication and advice to control it. If medication and lifestyle changes do not lower your blood pressure to an acceptable level, you may be referred to a cardiologist, who has extensive training in diagnosing and treating high blood pressure and associated damage to the cardiovascular system.
High blood pressure is an all-too-common condition in the United States, but a healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward lowering it and avoiding the damage it can do. Many people can forego blood pressure medication by staying active and eating heart-healthy foods. Know your blood pressure and work to keep it under control, with the help of lifestyle choices and your doctor’s recommendations.