What Is Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)?

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Hypertension, or high blood pressure, commonly affects over 1 billion people worldwide, including 45% of adults. Blood pressure measures the pressure at which your blood circulates throughout your body. It's measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and is read as a fraction.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes and can be life-threatening if left untreated. Hypertension is difficult to detect without testing and is often called a "silent killer." Because it usually does not produce symptoms, many people don't know they have it. Learning how to identify it and practicing prevention whenever possible is essential.

This article examines what it means to have high blood pressure, including causes, potential symptoms, long-term effects, treatment, and prevention.

Woman using Digital blood pressure monitor to check her blood pressure at home

Mayur Kakade / Getty Images

High Blood Pressure Symptoms

Hypertension is a blood pressure reading of 130/80 mm Hg or higher. The top number (systolic blood pressure) measures the pressure of blood in your arteries when your heart beats. The bottom number (diastolic blood pressure) measures the pressure of blood in your arteries when your heart is at rest between beats.

Normal blood pressure is lower than 120/80 mm Hg. High blood pressure is diagnosed when one or both numbers are higher than normal. People whose systolic blood pressure is between 120 and 129 have borderline hypertension. Unless blood pressure is severely elevated, it is unusual to have symptoms for hypertension. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

Rarer symptoms of high blood pressure include:

Follow up with a healthcare provider if you're experiencing any of these symptoms.

How Do You Know You Have Hypertension?

Since hypertension is often asymptomatic, it's helpful to have your blood pressure checked regularly as part of a routine medical exam, preferably annually as an adult.

In addition to the list of potential symptoms above, if high blood pressure is left untreated, it can lead to long-term problems, including:

Although rare, you can have a hypertensive emergency, a dangerous event in which anxiety, chest pain, nausea, and blurred vision can occur. Your blood pressure is generally 180/120 mm Hg or greater in this situation.

More often than not, there are no prominent symptoms of hypertension, which makes it even more important to understand your risk factors and to see a healthcare provider regularly.

Taking your blood pressure readings with a home blood pressure cuff is an easy way to monitor trends and help identify whether your blood pressure is higher than normal.

What Is Pulmonary Hypertension?

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) occurs when the blood pressure in your lungs is consistently higher than normal. There are five types, depending on the cause, including:

  • Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH)
  • PH due to blood clots
  • PH due to lung conditions
  • PH due to left heart disease
  • PH due to unclear reasons.

While it can't always be prevented to cured, high blood pressure can be helped by lifestyle modifications, medication, and oxygen therapy.

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

There are various reasons why someone might develop high blood pressure. High blood pressure is when the force of blood flow against your arteries is consistently too high and is generally caused by several lifestyle factors over time.

Some of these factors include:

  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • Poor diet, high in ultra-processed foods, sodium, and saturated fat, and low in fiber and potassium
  • Being overweight or having obesity
  • Having health conditions like diabetes

Hypertension becomes more likely with age as you experience increased sensitivity to salt, hormonal changes, and loss of flexibility in your blood vessels. Men more than women are likely to have high blood pressure before age 45, after which the risk becomes more even. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure after age 60.

Genetics can also play a role, meaning that if you have an immediate family member with hypertension, you may have a higher likelihood of experiencing it yourself.

Hypertension Diagnosis: Testing Options

The only way to know whether you have hypertension is to check your blood pressure reading or have it checked by a healthcare provider. This is an easy and painless procedure that requires the application of a blood pressure cuff to your upper arm.

Long-Term Effects of Hypertension

If you find out that you have high blood pressure, it's important to take action right away. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to dangerous complications, including:

  • Arteriosclerosis: As your body adjusts to managing high blood pressure over time, this can lead to physical changes in the structure of your blood vessels. Over time, the walls of the blood vessels will start to thicken. This leads to tissue damage and the hardening of your blood vessel walls.
  • Hypertensive retinopathy: Uncontrolled high blood pressure can affect the blood vessels in the retina (the thin layer of tissues in the backs of your eyes), leading to structural changes that damage the retina. This causes permanent changes in your vision.
  • Kidney disease: When the blood vessels in your kidneys are damaged from uncontrolled high blood pressure, this prevents the ability of your kidneys to filter waste from your body like they're supposed to. This can lead to kidney damage and other complications.
  • Heart attack and stroke: High blood pressure can cause damaged arteries with poor blood flow, which can put stress on your circulatory system and increase the risk of blockages.

High blood pressure is easy to diagnose, treat, and prevent through lifestyle changes and medication. A healthcare provider will be able to discuss the best options for you.

Hypertension Treatment and Medication

Due to the serious nature of uncontrolled high blood pressure, immediate action should be taken when it is diagnosed. This is often a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.


There are several types of medications a provider may prescribe you for blood pressure control. They may prescribe one or more at a time, depending on the severity of your hypertension. Some of the most commonly prescribed hypertension medications include:

  • Diuretics (water pills): Commonly prescribed first, these work by helping your kidneys remove excess salt and water from your body. This helps reduce the total volume and pressure of your circulation, thus reducing your blood pressure.
  • Beta-blockers: These work by slowing your heart rate and reducing the force by which your heartbeat moves blood through your arteries.
  • Alpha-blockers: These prevent nerve signals from telling your blood vessels to tighten, keeping them relaxed for longer and therefore reducing blood pressure.
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors): These prevent the body from producing a hormone that triggers the tightening of your blood vessels. This allows blood vessels to stay more open, reducing the pressure of circulation through them.
  • Calcium channel blockers: These prevent calcium from entering certain muscle cells in your blood vessels and heart, disrupting the path of electric signals. This can prevent the tightening of blood vessels or slow heart rate, reducing blood pressure.
  • Vasodilators: These are used to relax the muscles in the walls of your blood vessels, allowing them to stay open and allow for blood to circulate more easily through them.

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to medication when needed, lifestyle changes are an important part of your hypertension treatment plan. To support optimal blood pressure and heart health, consider the following:

  • Regular physical activity: Exercise is good for you and your heart but can temporarily raise your blood pressure even if you don't already have hypertension. Being active also helps promote healthy weight management, which benefits heart health.
  • A nutrient-dense diet: Good nutrition protects your artery and heart health and supports healthy blood flow. Opt for whole and minimally processed foods high in fiber and potassium, such as legumes, potatoes, leafy greens, oranges, avocados, and beets.
  • Stress management: When under stress, your body produces stress hormones like cortisol. While these hormones serve a purpose, a prolonged and repeated stress response can lead to hypertension.
  • Adequate sleep: Getting enough sleep is essential so your body can recharge and rebalance. While you sleep, your body regulates the stress hormone cortisol. Proper regulation can't happen if sleep is lacking, leading to high blood pressure. Experts recommend that most adults get seven to nine hours of sleep nightly.
  • Not smoking: Nicotine, the addictive compound in cigarettes, activates your sympathetic nervous system and stress and danger response. This triggers hormonal signals that ultimately increase your blood pressure. Vaping, or e-cigarettes, likely have a similar effect.

How to Prevent Hypertension

High blood pressure is reversible and preventable. The best way to prevent hypertension is to practice healthy lifestyle habits, have regular wellness exams, and monitor your blood pressure readings. If you notice symptoms that are out of the ordinary or are ever concerned about your blood pressure, speak to a healthcare provider.


High blood pressure is a prevalent health condition, affecting millions of people worldwide. High blood pressure should be taken seriously despite its prevalence, as it can have dangerous consequences if left untreated. Fortunately, high blood pressure is easily preventable and treatable with lifestyle modifications and medications that your healthcare provider may temporarily prescribe.

It's always important to speak with a healthcare provider if you are concerned about your blood pressure, especially if you have risk factors for it or notice higher-than-normal home blood pressure readings.

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By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a plant-based dietitian, writer, and speaker who specializes in helping people bring more plants to their plate. She's a highly respected writer in the health and nutrition space and loves talking about the power of diet. Lauren aims to connect people with the information and resources to live their healthiest, fullest life.