About High Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries, which carry blood from your heart to other parts of your body. Blood pressure normally rises and falls throughout the day. But if it stays high for a long time, it can damage your heart and lead to health problems. High blood pressure raises your risk for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the United States.1

High blood pressure has no warning signs or symptoms, and many people do not know they have it. The only way to know if you have it is to measure your blood pressure. Then you can take steps to control it if it is too high.

High Blood Pressure Signs and Symptoms

High blood pressure is called the “silent killer” because it often has no warning signs or symptoms, and many people do not know they have it.

Rarely, high blood pressure can cause symptoms like headaches or vomiting.

There’s only one way to know whether you have high blood pressure—have a doctor or other health professional measure it. Measuring your blood pressure is quick and painless.

Effects of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure can damage your health in many ways. It can seriously hurt important organs like your heart and brain.

Fortunately, you can control your blood pressure to lower your risk for serious health problems.

Decreased Blood Flow to the Heart

High blood pressure can harden your arteries, which decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart and lead to heart disease. In addition, decreased blood flow to the heart can cause:

  • Chest pain, also called angina.
  • Heart failure, a condition when your heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to your other organs.
  • Heart attack, which occurs when the blood supply to your heart is blocked and heart muscle begins to die without enough oxygen. The longer the blood flow is blocked, the greater the damage to the heart.

The Brain

High blood pressure can burst or block arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the brain, causing a stroke. Brain cells die during a stroke because they do not get enough oxygen. Stroke can cause serious disabilities in speech, movement, and other basic activities, and a stroke can kill you.

The Kidneys

Adults with diabetes, high blood pressure, or both have a higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease than those without these diseases. Approximately 1 of 3 adults with diabetes and 1 of 5 adults with high blood pressure have chronic kidney disease.

Measuring Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure normally rises and falls throughout the day. However, if your blood pressure stays high for a long time, it can damage your heart and lead to health problems. Chronic, or long-lasting, high blood pressure is also called hypertension.

Measure your blood pressure regularly to help your health care team diagnose any health problems early. You and your health care team can take steps to control your blood pressure if it is too high.

Why do I need to measure my blood pressure?

Measuring your blood pressure is the only way to know whether you have high blood pressure. High blood pressure has no warning signs or symptoms, and many people do not know they have it.

A health care team member can measure your blood pressure in a doctor’s office.

Where do I get my blood pressure checked?

You can get your blood pressure measured:

  • By a health care team member at a doctor’s office.
  • At pharmacies that have digital blood pressure measurement machines.
  • With a home blood pressure monitor that you can use yourself.

How do health care professionals measure my blood pressure?

First, a health care professional wraps an inflatable cuff around your arm. The cuff has a gauge on it that will measure your blood pressure. The health care professional then inflates the cuff to squeeze your arm.

The health care professional will slowly let air out of the cuff while listening to your pulse with a stethoscope and watching the gauge. This process is quick and painless.

The gauge uses a unit of measurement called millimeters of mercury (mmHg) to measure the pressure in your blood vessels.

How can I measure my blood pressure at home?

Talk with your health care team about regularly measuring your blood pressure at home, also called self-measured blood pressure (SMBP) monitoring.

SMBP means you regularly use a personal blood pressure measurement device away from a doctor’s office or hospital—usually at home. Most home blood pressure monitors are easy and safe to use. A health care team member can show you how to use one if you need help.

Evidence shows that people with high blood pressure are more likely to lower their blood pressure if they use SMBP combined with health care team support than patients with high blood pressure who don’t use SMBP.2

What do blood pressure numbers mean?

Blood pressure is measured using two numbers.

The first number, called systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats.

The second number, called diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart rests between beats.

If the measurement reads 120 systolic and 80 diastolic, you would say, “120 over 80,” or write, “120/80 mmHg.”

Which number is more important?

Both the systolic (the first number) and diastolic (the second number) numbers are important. A health care professional can use either number to make a diagnosis of high blood pressure.

However, health care professionals sometimes look at high systolic blood pressure levels as a bigger risk factor for heart disease. As people age, their systolic blood pressure levels typically increase.

Blood Pressure Levels1
Normal Blood PressureLess than 120/80 mmHg
At Risk for High Blood Pressure


Between 120/80 mmHg and 139/89 mmHg
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)More than 140/90 mmHg

What are normal blood pressure numbers?

A normal blood pressure level is less than 120/80 mmHg.1

No matter your age, you can take steps each day to keep your blood pressure in a healthy range.

What is elevated blood pressure (prehypertension)?

People with elevated blood pressure levels in between 120/80 and 139/89 mmHg are at high risk for high blood pressure.1

Elevated blood pressure is a condition called prehypertension.

You can help prevent high blood pressure by managing any health or medical conditions you have and making healthy lifestyle choices.

What is high blood pressure?

A high blood pressure level is 140/90 mmHg or more.1 High blood pressure is also called hypertension.

You can help control your high blood pressure by making healthy lifestyle changes and, in some cases, taking certain medicines.

Talk to your health care team right away if you think you have high blood pressure. You can take action to help lower your risk of heart disease, also sometimes called cardiovascular disease (CVD).

How often should I measure my blood pressure?

Talk with your health care team about how often you should have your blood pressure measured or measure it yourself. People who have high blood pressure may have theirs measured more often.


  1. National High Blood Pressure Education Program. The Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. Bethesda, MD: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; 2003.
  2. Uhlig K, Balk EM, Patel K, Ip S, Kitsios GD, Obadan NO, et al. Self-Measured Blood Pressure Monitoring: Comparative Effectiveness. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 45. (Prepared by the Tufts Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. HHSA 290-2007-10055-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 12-EHC002-EF. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.

Controlling Blood Pressure

You can make changes to your lifestyle that will help you control your blood pressure. Your doctor might prescribe medications that can help you. By controlling your blood pressure, you will lower your risk for the harmful effects of high blood pressure.

Work with Your Health Care Team

Team-based care that includes you, your doctor, and other health care providers can help reduce and control blood pressure.1

If you already have high blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe medications and lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes are just as important as medications. Follow your doctor’s instructions and stay on your medications. Do not stop taking your medications before talking to your doctor or pharmacist.

All drugs may have side effects, so talk to your doctor regularly. As your blood pressure improves, your doctor will check it often.

Make Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes can help you control your blood pressure.

  • Diet. Eat a healthy diet that is:
    • Low in salt (sodium), total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
    • High in fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Be active. Try taking a brisk 10-minute walk 3 times a day 5 days a week.
  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, quit as soon as possible. Visit Smokefree.gov for tips on quitting.

These lifestyle changes for blood pressure control are similar to those for preventing high blood pressure.


  1. Guide to Community Preventive Services. Cardiovascular disease prevention and control: team-based care to improve blood pressure control. Web site. Accessed June 24, 2014.