What is high blood pressure? Symptoms, causes and prevention

High blood pressure affects more than one in four adults in the UK (around 13.5 million people). In fact, it’s one of the biggest risk factors for premature death in the UK. High blood pressure rarely displays any symptoms and therefore often goes undetected. If left untreated, high blood pressure can put your health at serious risk.

This guide covers the symptoms of high blood pressure to look out for, the main causes and how to lower your blood pressure.

What is high blood pressure?

High blood pressure is blood pressure that has increased to an unhealthy amount for an extended period. Abnormally high blood pressure is often called hypertension. Hypertension can develop over several years and the earlier it’s detected the better.

The only way you’ll know if you have high blood pressure is to measure it. This is performed using an instrument called a sphygmomanometer, which has an inflatable cuff that’s placed around one arm. The inflation increases the pressure on the arm, allowing the machine to get an accurate blood pressure reading.

A blood pressure reading is shown using two measurements:

  •  The systolic pressure (the higher reading), which measures the force of blood being pumped around the blood vessels when your heart contracts.
  •  The diastolic pressure (the lower reading), which measures the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels, or rather when the heart relaxes between beats.

Once measured, two numbers representing these measurements will show up on the sphygmomanometer screen. The higher number is the systolic pressure and the lower number is the diastolic pressure. You’ll also see that the measurement is in mmHg, which means millimetres of mercury, and denotes a unit of pressure.

Normal blood pressure is considered to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg. High blood pressure is any number above 140/90mmHg. If your blood pressure reading is between 120/80mmHg and 140/90mmHg, this could mean you’re at risk of developing high blood pressure.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

High blood pressure rarely has symptoms which means that many people live with high blood pressure for a long time without realising it.

Where symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Headaches
  • Nosebleeds
  • Vision problems
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing

Because most people with hypertension do not have symptoms it’s important to check your blood pressure regularly.

What causes high blood pressure?

The causes of high blood pressure aren’t usually clear, but many factors increase the risk of getting high blood pressure. These include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Too much salt in the diet
  • Not exercising regularly enough
  • High levels of stress
  • Being 65 and over
  • Too much alcohol or caffeine
  • Having a relative with high blood pressure
  • Being of black African or black Caribbean descent
  • Not getting enough sleep

If your blood pressure remains high for a prolonged period, you increase your risk of experiencing various serious health conditions that could be life threatening.

When your blood pressure is high, the arteries become less stretchy. Fatty deposits then build up within the arteries, making it harder for blood and oxygen to circulate.

The two most common conditions to happen because of this are:

  • Heart attack: when the arteries that pump blood to the heart become blocked.
  • Stroke: when the arteries that pump blood to the brain become blocked.

Other diseases that can occur because of high blood pressure are:

  • Kidney disease
  • Dementia
  • Aneurysm

Decreasing your blood pressure if it’s high could reduce your risk of these health conditions.

How to lower your blood pressure

There are a number of ways to prevent high blood pressure if you’re at risk. These include lifestyle changes and certain medications.

Lifestyle changes that could reduce blood pressure are:

  • Exercising regularly, preferably 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 20-30 minutes a day
  • Reducing the amount of salt, alcohol and caffeine in the diet
  • Stopping smoking
  • Taking periods of time to relax to lower stress levels
  • Getting a good night’s sleep

Some medicines that are used to treat high blood pressure include:

  • ACE inhibitors
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Diuretics
  • Alpha or beta blockers

Most people with hypertension need to take more than one type of medication. You should not stop taking the medication without consulting your GP.

How do you feel when you have high blood pressure?

Most people with high blood pressure have no symptoms from it even when the pressure is very high. However, some people get symptoms such as headaches, nose bleeds or blurred vision. These symptoms are not specific to hypertension so do not try to self-diagnose.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure in a woman?

It is difficult to differentiate symptoms of high blood pressure in women from men due to the fact that symptoms are often not present. Men and women are both at risk of high blood pressure. However, there is some evidence to suggest that hormonal factors in women represent an additional risk however. These hormonal influences include taking birth control pills, pregnancy and menopause.

How can I lower my blood pressure immediately?

There is no fast solution to lowering your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a condition that takes time to treat, and such treatment may involve a combination of lifestyle changes and medication as mentioned above.

Can drinking lots of water lower blood pressure?

When you are dehydrated your body decreases its urine output and releases a hormone which constricts blood vessels. This can in turn lead to blood pressure increasing. Therefore one should stay hydrated by drinking 6-8 glasses of fluid per day.

How do I get my blood pressure taken?

If you want to check your blood pressure, you can get it measured as part of a health assessment with Bluecrest Wellness. As well as blood pressure, we’ll also perform an ECG, lung test and biometric analysis to check various aspects of your health.

To read more information, check out our articles about the impact of smoking and drinking on your blood pressure.