What Are the Signs Your Blood Pressure Is Too High?

Reviewed on 3/2/2021

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the pressure that blood exerts on your arteries. Signs of high blood pressure include flushing, dizziness and blood spots in the eyes.
Blood pressure is the pressure that blood exerts on your arteries. Signs of high blood pressure include flushing, dizziness and blood spots in the eyes.

Blood pressure is a measurement of the force of your blood as it pushes against artery walls. This force moves blood throughout your body. Every time you visit a doctor, you get a blood pressure reading to make sure your blood pressure numbers aren’t too high or too low. If they get above a certain level, heart and blood problems can arise. 

A typical blood pressure reading involves a top number and a bottom number. The top number refers to systolic blood pressure, or the measure of blood pressure when your heart contracts. The bottom number refers to diastolic blood pressure, or the measure of blood pressure when your heart expands.

But how do you know if your blood pressure is too high? Learn about the signs and symptoms and ways to treat high blood pressure if you have it.

What is high blood pressure? 

High blood pressure is defined as blood pressure at or above 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) {American College of Cardiology: “2017 Guideline for High Blood Pressure in Adults.”}. Nearly half of adults living in the United States have high blood pressure (also called hypertension) or currently take medication to treat hypertension {Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Facts About Hypertension.”}. If left untreated, hypertension contributes to medical conditions like heart disease and stroke, which claim millions of lives each year. 

Signs of high blood pressure 

Many adults have high blood pressure, but they aren’t aware of it. That’s why medical experts call hypertension a “silent condition.” The only way to know for sure if you have high blood pressure is to measure it regularly. You can do this at home or during a visit to your doctor’s office. 

Although not directly caused by hypertension, there are a few symptoms that can indirectly result from high blood pressure numbers. These include: 

Blood spots in the eyes

Having red spots in your eyes is most commonly seen in individuals with high blood pressure or diabetes. Diabetes and high blood pressure do not cause blood spots, however. An ophthalmologist (eye doctor) can best determine if untreated hypertension is causing optic nerve damage, leading to blood spots in the eyes. 

Facial flushing

Lots of internal and external factors can cause facial flushing, like eating spicy foods, drinking hot drinks, wind, stress, hormone fluctuation, and skincare products. Your face can flush when you have higher than normal blood pressure, but hypertension isn’t causing facial flushing. 

Dizziness

Early warning signs of a stroke include sudden onset of dizziness, loss of balance, and trouble walking. High blood pressure is the top risk factor for stroke, so it’s possible for high blood pressure and dizziness to be related. Dizziness is also a common side effect of some blood pressure medications. 

Types of high blood pressure

There are two types of high blood pressure. Which type you have depends on your blood pressure range

  • Stage 1: Systolic reading of 130–139 mm Hg or a diastolic reading of 80–89 mm Hg
  • Stage 2: Systolic reading of 140 mm Hg or higher, or a diastolic reading of 90 mm Hg or higher 

Causes of high blood pressure 

Genetics and age both contribute to your likelihood of having high blood pressure. If anyone in your family has a history of high blood pressure, you might face a higher risk of having high blood pressure. Middle-aged and older adults face a higher risk too. 

Other risk factors for high blood pressure include: 

High blood pressure is also more common in African Americans, women who take oral contraceptives, people who drink a lot of alcohol, and individuals who eat a high sodium diet

When to see a doctor for high blood pressure 

Since the majority of individuals living with hypertension don’t experience symptoms, it’s likely you’ll find out about your high blood pressure numbers during a doctor’s appointment. After being diagnosed with hypertension, you should continue to see your doctor, especially if you can’t control your blood pressure with prescribed medication or recommended lifestyle changes. 

You’re experiencing a hypertensive crisis

You should also see or contact your doctor if you experience a related high blood pressure event called a hypertensive crisis. There are two main types of hypertensive crises:

Hypertensive emergency 

A hypertensive emergency is a rare medical emergency where your blood pressure is 180/120 mm Hg or higher and you are experiencing symptoms of target organ damage. If this happens to you, call emergency medical services right away. 

Symptoms of target organ damage include:

Hypertensive urgency 

If you’re experiencing elevated blood pressure of 180/120 mm Hg or higher but are not experiencing any of the above symptoms, this is called hypertensive urgency. Wait five minutes and take your blood pressure a second time. If it is just as high, call your doctor’s office. Your doctor might want to adjust your medications. Hypertensive urgency does not usually result in hospitalization. 

Tests for high blood pressure 

When you have a doctor’s appointment, a nurse, medical assistant, or doctor typically checks your blood pressure. They routinely check blood pressure because there aren’t symptoms of high blood pressure. The only way to catch it is to test it. 

A blood pressure machine, officially called a sphygmomanometer, is used to test for high blood pressure. The blood pressure cuff fits around your arm. Doctors or nurses might use a manual blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope to measure your blood pressure. At home, you can use an electronic blood pressure monitor. It only takes a minute or so to do the test. 

When measuring blood pressure, you’ll observe two numbers: 

  • Systolic: top number indicating pressure inside the artery when the heart is contracting 
  • Diastolic: bottom number indicating the pressure of blood inside the arteries when the heart is filling 

You have high blood pressure if you have a systolic reading (top number) of 140 mm Hg or higher and a diastolic reading (bottom number) of 90 mm Hg or higher. In this case, the nurse or doctor might wait a few minutes and check your blood pressure again. If it’s still high, you might be asked to monitor your blood pressure at home. 

High blood pressure can be a sign of another medical condition. Untreated high blood pressure can cause organ damage. To assess your health properly, a doctor might also order a urine test, blood tests, or an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart health. 

Treatment for high blood pressure 

Before prescribing medication, doctors usually suggest lifestyle changes that can help you lower your blood pressure. Changes might include: 

  • Exercising regularly
  • Following a heart-healthy diet that’s low in salt
  • Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight
  • Managing stress
  • Quitting smoking 
  • Limiting alcohol consumption 

For many, especially those with stage 1 hypertension, lifestyle changes alone can lower someone’s blood pressure into the normal range

If lifestyle changes don’t lower your blood pressure, your doctor might suggest medications. Medications are most often recommended for individuals with stage 2 hypertension or individuals with stage 1 hypertension who have previously had a heart attack or stroke

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References
SOURCES:

American College of Cardiology: "2017 Guideline for High Blood Pressure in Adults."

American Heart Association: "Changes You Can Make to Manage High Blood Pressure."

American Heart Association: "Hypertensive Crisis: When You Should Call 911 for High Blood Pressure."

American Heart Association: "Understanding Blood Pressure Readings."

American Heart Association: "What are the Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?"

Cardiology Today: "Hypertension: Screening Overview."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Facts About Hypertension."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Reading the new blood pressure guidelines."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "High Blood Pressure/Hypertension."

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