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When Is It High Blood Pressure?

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 high blood pressure include:

  • headaches
  • shortness of breath
  • nosebleeds
  • chest pain
  • visual problems
  • dizziness

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 are the symptoms of high blood pressure? »

What’s considered high blood pressure?

Blood pressure readings have two numbers. The top reading is your systolic number, which is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart contracts. The bottom reading is your diastolic number, which measures pressure in your arteries when your heart relaxes between beats. The two numbers together will show whether your blood pressure is healthy or unhealthy. A high systolic (140 and over) or diastolic (90 and over) can count as high blood pressure. But the 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 or 80 diastolic. Blood pressure between 120/80 to 140/90 is normal. But if it’s on the higher end, it may also be a sign of pre-hypertension. Pre-hypertension means you have a greater risk of developing blood pressure later on. Your doctor may suggest eating less salt 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 pressureDiastolic pressureStages of hypertension
210120stage 4
180110stage 3
160100stage 2
14090stage 1
 

High blood pressure in children

High blood can also affect children, from infants to teenagers. Unlike adults, there’s no specific “healthy” range for children. Instead your doctor will compare your child’s blood pressure reading to the average. Hypertension in children is when their blood pressure is higher than the 95th percentile for their age, height, and gender. This means that 95 percent of other children have a lower blood pressure reading.

For example, if your child is of average height for their age, a normal blood pressure would be:

Age (years)MaleFemale
1 to 3 80/34 to 120/7583/38 to 117/76
4 to 688/47 to 128/8488/50 to 122/83
7 to 1092/53 to 130/9093/55 to 129/88
 

Talk to your doctor if your child’s blood pressure reads 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 120 systolic or 80 diastolic or lower. About 8 percent of women develop some form of hypertension while pregnant, says the March of Dimes.

There are two types of high blood pressure in pregnancy:

  • Chronic hypertension: This is when blood pressure is high before becoming pregnant, or when high blood pressure develops before 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Gestational hypertension: This type of high blood pressure is specific to pregnant women and typically develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Gestational hypertension disappears after birth.

Your doctor may prescribe medications if you have high blood pressure during pregnancy.

Read more: What causes high blood pressure during pregnancy? »

How to measure blood pressure?

Usually a nurse will check your blood pressure to make sure it’s not too low or too higher before your doctor’s appointment. But you can also your readings manually at home. You can use an inflatable cuff similar to those used at your doctor’s office or 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:

  • stress or anxiety
  • cold temperature
  • exercise
  • caffeine
  • a full bladder

For a more accurate reading:

  • Take your blood pressure in a quiet location when you’re calm and relaxed.
  • Don’t exercise or eat 30 minutes before measuring your blood pressure.
  • It’s best to take your pressure in the mornings after you wake up for consistency.

Herbs that help with high blood pressure »

Complications of high blood pressure

Untreated and uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and other organs, including your heart and brain.

Complications of hypertension in adults and children include:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • brain aneurysm
  • heart failure
  • kidney failure
  • loss of vision
  • difficulty thinking or memory problem

If you're pregnant, high blood pressure complications may be:

  • pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure and high levels of protein in urine)
  • eclampsia – high blood pressure, protein in the urine, and seizures
  • premature birth
  • low birth weight
  • placenta abruption, where 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 readings are consistently high on three 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. You can record your blood pressure at home over several days. If your results are consistently high, 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 1 blockers to help control heart rate and relax blood vessels
  • angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors or angiotensin ll receptor blockers to relax blood vessels
  • calcium channel blockers to relax muscles around your blood vessels and slow your heart rate
  • alpha 1 blockers to relax your blood vessels
  • vasodilators to help relax muscles in the walls of the arteries
  • alpha 2 agonists to relax your blood vessels

If an underlining 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.

Read more: How to understand blood pressure readings »

Prevention and self-care

Healthy lifestyle changes can help manage and prevent high blood pressure. Steps you can take include:

  • eating a low-fat, 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 insomnia can increase the risk for hypertension by 20 percent

It’s difficult to prevent gestational hypertension 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 eating healthy and staying active during pregnancy.

Read more: What foods to avoid for hypertension »

When to see a doctor for high blood pressure

Call your doctor if you have high blood pressure and:

  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • headaches
  • excessive sweating
  • vision problems
  • confusion
  • chest pain
  • blood in the urine

This could be a side effect of medication. Your doctor will lower or change your dosage accordingly.

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. Some health care clinics will also do free blood pressure screenings. You may also schedule an appointment at your local pharmacy.

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