What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the measurement of the pressure or force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls. In hypertension (high blood pressure), the pressure against the blood vessel walls is consistently too high. High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because you may not be aware that anything is wrong, but the damage is occurring within your body.

The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure taken. It is best to know your numbers and make the changes that can help prevent or limit damage.

Understanding BP readings

Your blood pressure reading has two numbers. The first is the systolic, which measures the pressure on the blood vessel walls when your heart beats. The second number is the diastolic, which measures the pressure on your blood vessels between beats when the heart is at rest.

What is a normal blood pressure reading?

  • Blood Pressure Category: Normal
    • Systolic mm Hg (upper number): less than 120
    • and
    • Diastolic mm Hg (lower number): less than 80
  • Blood Pressure Category: Prehypertension
    • Systolic mm Hg (upper number): 120 – 139
    • or
    • Diastolic mm Hg (lower number): 80 – 89
  • Blood Pressure Category: High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 1
    • Systolic mm Hg (upper number): 140 – 159
    • or
    • Diastolic mm Hg (lower number): 90 – 99
  • Blood Pressure Category: High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) Stage 2
    • Systolic mm Hg (upper number): 160 or higher
    • or
    • Diastolic mm Hg (lower number): 100 or higher
  • Blood Pressure Category: Hypertensive Crisis (Emergency care needed)
    • Systolic mm Hg (upper number): Higher than 180
    • or
    • Diastolic mm Hg (lower number): Higher than 110

What can happen if high blood pressure is not treated?

  • Stroke
  • Enlarged heart
  • Heart failure
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Heart attack
  • Kidney disease/failure

Who is more likely to have high blood pressure?

  • People with family members who have high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes
  • African-Americans
  • Women who are pregnant
  • Women who take birth control pills
  • People over 35
  • People who are overweight
  • People who are not active
  • People who drink a lot of alcohol
  • People who eat too many fatty foods or foods with too much salt
  • People who smoke

What should I do if I have high blood pressure?

  • If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you should discuss your target blood pressure with your healthcare provider.
  • Check your own blood pressure at home as recommended.
  • Eat healthy foods that are low in salt and fat.
  • Achieve and maintain your ideal body weight.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks each day. One drink is defined as 1 oz. of alcohol, 5 oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer.
  • Be more physically active.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Work on controlling anger and managing stress.
  • Take high blood pressure medicine if your healthcare provider prescribes it, and follow the healthcare provider's directions carefully.
  • Have regular blood pressure checks by your healthcare provider.

What should I include in my diet to control high blood pressure?

  • Eat foods that are lower in fat, salt, and calories, such as skim or 1% milk, fresh vegetables and fruits, and whole grain, rice, and pasta. (Ask your doctor or healthcare provider for a more detailed list of salt-free foods to eat.)
  • Use flavorings, spices, and herbs to make foods tasty without using salt.
  • Avoid or cut down on butter and margarine, regular salad dressings, fatty meats, whole milk dairy products, fried foods, processed foods or fast foods, and salted snacks.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if you should increase potassium in your diet or if you need to take a potassium supplement.
  • Discuss the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet with your healthcare provider.

How can I be more active?

  • Check first with your healthcare provider before increasing your physical activity. Ask your provider what type and amount of exercise is right for you.
  • Choose aerobic activities such as walking, biking, or swimming.
  • Start slowly and increase activity gradually. Aim for a regular routine of activity five times a week for 30 to 45 minutes each session.
  • Activity can be done in 10-minute sessions to add up to the 30-45 minutes total.

What should I know about blood pressure medicine?

There are many different medicines to treat high blood pressure, and you might need to take medicine from now on. If your healthcare provider tells you to take high blood pressure medicine, be sure to follow the exact directions.

Also, ask what side effects can happen with your medicine, and talk to your healthcare provider about any problems or side effects you might have with your medicine. Lastly, do not stop taking the medicine on your own.


© Copyright 1995-2017 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 5/10/2017...#4314