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What is high blood pressure (hypertension)?

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

Roughly a third of adults in the UK are living with hypertension, or as it’s more commonly known, high blood pressure. Although it can go unnoticed for years, persistent high blood pressure can lead to a number of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. With our handy guide you can learn what high blood pressure is, how it’s treated, and the steps you can take to help prevent or manage it.

What exactly is blood pressure and when does it become high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is a measure of the force that your heart uses to pump blood around your body. It’s recorded using two numbers:

  • Systolic pressure is the force at which blood is pumped around the body by your heart

  • Diastolic pressure is the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels

They’re both measured in units of “mmHg” (which means “millimetres of mercury”) and your reading is expressed as the systolic pressure first, then the diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure is always higher than diastolic pressure. Ideal blood pressure is considered to be between 90/60 mmHg and 120/80 mmHg.

High blood pressure is classed as a reading of 140/90 mmHg or higher (or if you’re over 80 years of age, it’s 150/90 mmHg or higher).

And what are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

The symptoms of high blood pressure are rarely noticeable in the short term. The only way to tell if you have high blood pressure is by taking a measurement. This means you could be living with high blood without being aware of it.

Great news. If high blood pressure has no symptoms that means no problem, right?

Hold your horses! Although you may not become immediately ill or feel any discomfort from having high blood pressure, it’s still serious. When your blood pressure is too high it will put an extra strain on your heart, blood vessels and other organs. If this is persistent, it could increase the risk of potentially life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, and heart failure. It can also lead to strokes, kidney disease, aortic aneurysms and more.

Oh right, high blood pressure is serious. What causes it?

The causes of high blood pressure unfortunately won’t always be clear. However, you may be at increased risk if you are:

  • Over the age of 65

  • Overweight

  • Of African or Caribbean descent

The following factors may also contribute to high blood pressure – if you:

  • Smoke

  • Don’t exercise enough

  • Drink too much alcohol, coffee or other caffeine-based drinks

  • Eat too much salt and too few fruits and vegetables

  • Don’t get much sleep

  • Have a relative with high blood pressure

Can high blood pressure be managed?

The great news is that high blood pressure can usually be managed successfully. The best treatment regime will vary from person to person, but lowering your blood pressure even just a small amount can help lower your risk of serious health conditions. With some healthy lifestyle changes, you can help to lower your high blood pressure or reduce the chances of it becoming raised.

Changes you could make include:

  • Stopping smoking

  • Cutting back on alcohol

  • Losing weight (if you’re overweight)

  • Drinking fewer caffeinated drinks

  • Exercising regularly

Medicines can also be prescribed to help keep your high blood pressure under control. They’ll typically come in the form of tablets or capsules. Commonly prescribed medicines include ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), calcium channel blockers, diuretics, beta blockers, and alpha blockers.

Which of these you’re prescribed will depend on various factors including your age, ethnicity, and how high your blood pressure is. You might be prescribed more than one type of medicine at the same time.

How do I check if I have high blood pressure?

Because the symptoms can go unnoticed, the only way to know for sure if you have high blood pressure is with a simple and fast non-invasive test, which involves inflating a cuff around your arm and measuring the amount of pressure in the cuff that’s required to briefly stop blood flow, and then the amount of pressure required for the flow to restart.

Adults over 40 are advised to have their blood pressure checked at least once every 5 years. You can have your blood pressure checked at your doctor’s surgery, many pharmacies, and as part of an NHS checkup; and you can buy home blood pressure monitors online. Getting checked is quick and easy and could potentially save your life so there’s no excuse not to get it done!