High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) doesn’t usually have symptoms but can increase your chances of serious health problems.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is high blood pressure?

If your blood pressure is too high, it can put extra strain on your blood vessels, tissues and organs. If left unchecked, it can increase your risk of more serious problems, such as:

  • Aortic aneurysm – a swelling in the main blood vessel leading away from your heart
  • Coronary heart disease, heart failure and/or heart attack
  • Kidney disease
  • Peripheral arterial disease – restricted blood supply to your leg muscles
  • Stroke
  • Vascular dementia

It’s thought as many as 7 million people have undiagnosed high blood pressure in the UK.

How to tell if you have high blood pressure

High blood pressure usually has no signs or symptoms. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have blood pressure tests. It’s recommended that you have your blood pressure monitored if you:

  • Are over 40
  • Are overweight
  • Have a family history of high blood pressure or heart disease
  • Have already been diagnosed with a high or low blood pressure

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for high blood pressure

Your doctor will use a blood pressure machine called a sphygmomanometer to measure the amount of pressure in your blood vessels when your blood pumps. A cuff is placed around your arm and inflated to restrict your blood flow. The pressure in the cuff is then slowly released while a stethoscope or digital device detects your pulse. The device takes two pressure readings, measured in mmHg:

  • Systolic – when your heart pumps blood out
  • Diastolic – when your heart is resting between beats

A systolic pressure of 130mmHg and a diastolic pressure of 90mmHg gives you a reading of “130 over 90” or 130/90mmHg.

In general:

  • A healthy blood pressure is roughly between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg
  • High blood pressure is considered to be 140/90mmHg or higher
  • Low blood pressure is considered to be 90/60mmHg or lower

Having only one test showing high blood pressure doesn’t mean you have consistently high blood pressure. Your doctor will take readings over a period of time to make a diagnosis.

Causes of high blood pressure

It’s not always known what causes high blood pressure, but it can be due to lifestyle factors such as:

  • Being overweight
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating too much salt
  • Lack of exercise
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Smoking

You’re also more likely to have high blood pressure if you:

  • Are of African or Caribbean descent
  • Are over 65
  • Have a family history of high blood pressure

Common treatments for high blood pressure

Your doctor will discuss how to lower your blood pressure, such as:

  • Losing weight, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly
  • Stopping smoking and cutting down on alcohol
  • Getting enough sleep

They may also prescribe medication to lower your blood pressure. Common types of medications include:

  • ACE inhibitors – reduces the level of angiotensin II in your body, a hormone which causes your vessels to narrow, and lowers the amount of water your body retains
  • Angiotensin receptor blockers ­– block the effects of angiotensin so your blood vessels relax and widen, allowing more blood through
  • Calcium channel blockers – your body sometimes uses calcium to narrow your vessels so blocking its effect can make your blood vessels relax and allow more blood through
  • Thiazide diuretics – increase the amount of water and salt that is passed out of your body in your urine to reduce your blood volume