What Is Hypertension?

High blood pressure is called the "silent killer," but there are still a few warning signs to watch out for.

High blood pressure—which doctors technically call hypertension—can slowly develop and damage your body for years. Over time, if high blood pressure causes enough damage, it can increase your risk of stroke or heart attack.

It's a dangerous condition, but it is even more dangerous because high blood pressure doesn't usually present with many (if any) symptoms. As a result, it's often called the "silent killer." But this doesn't mean you're entirely out of luck when it comes to diagnosing and treating hypertension.

Here's what you need to know about high blood pressure and how it may present in those affected.

What Is Blood Pressure?

In general, blood pressure is defined as "the force of blood on a vessel wall," Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine doctor at Cleveland Clinic, told Health—and having your blood pressure measured by a healthcare provider is the only way to know whether your blood pressure is too high.

That blood pressure reading—which is measured by a gauge attached to an inflatable blood pressure cuff that wraps around your arm and gently tightens—comes in two different numbers:

  • Systolic blood pressure: the pressure inside your arteries when your heart beats
  • Diastolic blood pressure: the pressure inside your arteries when your heart is resting).

Healthcare providers tell you your blood pressure in this format: systolic blood pressure over diastolic blood pressure. For example, 120 over 80 (120/80) is considered the normal range for blood pressure, per the American Heart Association (AHA).

Hypertension Symptoms

Overall, Dr. Vyas said high blood pressure is "called the silent killer for a reason." There are usually no warning signs or symptoms, and many people do not know they have it. Additionally, any possible symptoms that could be related to high blood pressure could also be indicative of other health conditions.

The best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to get it measured, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The AHA lists three "inconclusively related symptoms of high blood pressure" related to high blood pressure but not always caused by it: blood spots in the eyes, facial flushing, and dizziness.

Blood Spots in the Eyes

This condition—technically called subconjunctival hemorrhage—is more common in those with diabetes and high blood pressure, though neither directly causes the blood spots, per the AHA.

Facial Flushing

According to the AHA, a red face from high blood pressure happens when blood vessels in the face dilate. While facial flushing may occur with high blood pressure, it can also result from other factors like sun exposure, cold temperature, spicy foods, and skin care products.


While dizziness isn't directly caused by high blood pressure, sudden onset dizziness, loss of coordination and balance, and trouble walking should not be ignored, per the AHA, since they can be indicators of a stroke (for which high blood pressure is the leading cause).

Symptoms of Hypertensive Crisis

While higher-than-normal blood pressure often doesn't show specific symptoms, a hypertensive crisis—when blood pressure rises quickly and severely, and reads 180/120 or higher—can show some more specific symptoms and necessitate immediate medical attention, according to the AHA.

Readings in this range can lead to organ damage, heart attack, stroke, or loss of consciousness.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, call 9-1-1 and seek urgent medical care:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Back pain
  • Numbness or weakness
  • Change in vision
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Severe headache
  • Nosebleeds
  • Severe anxiety

If you get a high blood pressure reading, but don't have any of the above symptoms, try to relax for 5 minutes and then take a reading again. If the second reading is still 180/120 or greater, seek urgent medical care.

Causes and Risk Factors

High blood pressure often develops over time. Lifestyle factors, certain health conditions, genetics, and family history, can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, according to the CDC.

Lifestyle choices that can increase your risk, per the CDC, include:

  • Not getting regular physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating a diet that is too high in sodium and too low in potassium 

Certain health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, can also increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. High blood pressure can also happen during pregnancy, per the CDC.

Preventative Actions You Can Take

The takeaway here? Get your blood pressure checked regularly and listen to your healthcare provider if they advise you to lower your blood pressure.

Unlike other medical conditions, you can't count on a symptom to signal that your blood pressure is dangerously high. So, keeping your blood pressure under control consistently is essential, especially if a healthcare provider suggests you need to.

Thankfully, various blood pressure medications can be prescribed based on a specific patient's needs, but lifestyle changes also offer many different ways to lower your blood pressure.

Do Not Smoke

If you smoke, consider stopping. It can damage your heart and blood vessels.

Nicotine raises blood pressure, and breathing in carbon monoxide when lighting up reduces the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry, according to the CDC.

Limit Alcohol

Make sure not to drink excessively. The CDC recommends limiting intake to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

Exercise Regularly

Aim to get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or bicycling, every week, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. For example, you could do at 30 minutes of activity five days a week.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Eat more whole foods and limit or avoid processed foods since they tend to be high in sodium. Whole foods that are also high in potassium include bananas, potatoes, beans, and yogurt.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is important for overall health. Adults should aim for at least seven hours per night, according to the CDC.

Additionally, Dr. Vyas recommended trying to lower your stress levels as much as possible. Getting a good night's rest can be helpful as can taking time to unwind each day with activities you enjoy.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles