High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is blood pressure that is higher than normal. Your blood pressure changes throughout the day based on your activities. Having blood pressure measures consistently above normal may result in a diagnosis of high blood pressure (or hypertension).
Your health care team can diagnose high blood pressure and make treatment decisions by reviewing your systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels and comparing them to levels found in certain guidelines.
The guidelines used to diagnose high blood pressure may differ from health care professional to health care professional:
Some health care professionals diagnose patients with high blood pressure if their blood pressure is consistently 140/90 mm Hg or higher.2 This limit is based on a guideline released in 2003, as seen in the table below.
Other health care professionals diagnose patients with high blood pressure if their blood pressure is consistently 130/80 mm Hg or higher.1 This limit is based on a guideline released in 2017, as seen in the table below.
Blood Pressure Levels
The Seventh Report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (2003 Guideline)2
The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults (2017 Guideline)
systolic: less than 120 mm Hg
diastolic: less than 80 mm Hg
At Risk (prehypertension)
systolic: 120–139 mm Hg
diastolic: 80–89 mm Hg
systolic: 120–129 mm Hg
diastolic: less than 80 mm Hg
High Blood Pressure (hypertension)
systolic: 140 mm Hg or higher
diastolic: 90 mm Hg or higher
High blood pressure (hypertension)
systolic: 130 mm Hg or higher
diastolic: 80 mm Hg or higher
If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, talk with your health care team about your blood pressure levels and how these levels affect your treatment plan.
The best way to diagnose high blood pressure (HBP or hypertension) is to have your blood pressure measured.
How a blood pressure test works
A blood pressure reading is taken with a pressure cuff (sphygmomanometer).
During the test, the cuff is placed around the upper arm before being manually or electronically inflated.
Once inflated, the cuff compresses the brachial artery, momentarily stopping blood flow.
Next, air in the cuff is slowly released while the person performing the measurement listens with a stethoscope or monitors an electronic readout.
Your blood pressure reading is recorded as two numbers:
Systolic blood pressure (the top number) — indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls during heartbeats.
Diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) — indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.
If your blood pressure is normal (less than 120/80 mm Hg), your blood pressure should be screened during regular healthcare visits yearly for anyone 20 years of age or older.
If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure
Your doctor may recommend monitoring your blood pressure numbers at home in addition to your regular healthcare visits.
Check out all the high blood pressure tools and resources.
Changing your lifestyle can help control and manage high blood pressure. Your doctor may recommend that you make lifestyle changes including:
Eating a heart-healthy diet with less salt
Getting regular physical activity
Maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight if you're overweight or obese
Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink
But sometimes lifestyle changes aren't enough. If diet and exercise don't help, your doctor may recommend medication to lower your blood pressure.
The type of medication your doctor prescribes for high blood pressure depends on your blood pressure measurements and overall health. Two or more blood pressure drugs often work better than one. Sometimes finding the most effective medication or combination of drugs is a matter of trial and error.
You should aim for a blood pressure treatment goal of less than 130/80 mm Hg if:
You're a healthy adult age 65 or older
You're a healthy adult younger than age 65 with a 10% or higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years
You have chronic kidney disease, diabetes or coronary artery disease
Ask your doctor what your blood pressure treatment goal should be. Also, the ideal blood pressure treatment goal can vary with age and health conditions, particularly if you're older than age 65.
Medications used to treat high blood pressure include:
Diuretics. Diuretics, sometimes called water pills, are medications that help your kidneys eliminate sodium and water from the body. These drugs are often the first medications tried to treat high blood pressure.
There are different classes of diuretics, including thiazide, loop and potassium sparing. Which one your doctor recommends depends on your blood pressure measurements and other health conditions, such a kidney disease or heart failure. Diuretics commonly used to treat blood pressure include chlorthalidone, hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide) and others.
A common side effect of diuretics is increased urination, which could reduce potassium levels. If you have a low potassium level, your doctor may add a potassium-sparing diuretic — such as triamterene (Dyazide, Maxide) or spironolactone (Aldactone) — to your treatment.
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. These medications — such as lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril), benazepril (Lotensin), captopril and others — help relax blood vessels by blocking the formation of a natural chemical that narrows blood vessels.
Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs). These medications relax blood vessels by blocking the action, not the formation, of a natural chemical that narrows blood vessels. ARBs include candesartan (Atacand), losartan (Cozaar) and others.
Calcium channel blockers. These medications — including amlodipine (Norvasc), diltiazem (Cardizem, Tiazac, others) and others — help relax the muscles of your blood vessels. Some slow your heart rate. Calcium channel blockers may work better for older people and people of African heritage than do ACE inhibitors alone.
Don't eat or drink grapefruit products when taking calcium channel blockers. Grapefruit increases blood levels of certain calcium channel blockers, which can be dangerous. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you're concerned about interactions.
Additional medications sometimes used to treat high blood pressure
If you're having trouble reaching your blood pressure goal with combinations of the above medications, your doctor may prescribe:
Alpha blockers. These medications reduce nerve signals to blood vessels, lowering the effects of natural chemicals that narrow blood vessels. Alpha blockers include doxazosin (Cardura), prazosin (Minipress) and others.
Alpha-beta blockers. Alpha-beta blockers block nerve signals to blood vessels and slow the heartbeat to reduce the amount of blood that must be pumped through the vessels. Alpha-beta blockers include carvedilol (Coreg) and labetalol (Trandate).
Beta blockers. These medications reduce the workload on your heart and widen your blood vessels, causing your heart to beat slower and with less force. Beta blockers include acebutolol, atenolol (Tenormin) and others.
Beta blockers aren't usually recommended as the only medication you're prescribed, but they may be effective when combined with other blood pressure medications.
Aldosterone antagonists. These drugs also are considered diuretics. Examples are spironolactone and eplerenone (Inspra). These drugs block the effect of a natural chemical that can lead to salt and fluid buildup, which can contribute to high blood pressure. They may be used to treat resistant hypertension.
Renin inhibitors. Aliskiren (Tekturna) slows the production of renin, an enzyme produced by your kidneys that starts a chain of chemical steps that increases blood pressure.
Due to a risk of serious complications, including stroke, you shouldn't take aliskiren with ACE inhibitors or ARBs.
Vasodilators. These medications include hydralazine and minoxidil. They work directly on the muscles in the walls of your arteries, preventing the muscles from tightening and your arteries from narrowing.
Central-acting agents. These medications prevent your brain from telling your nervous system to increase your heart rate and narrow your blood vessels. Examples include clonidine (Catapres, Kapvay), guanfacine (Intuniv) and methyldopa.
Treating resistant hypertension
If your blood pressure remains stubbornly high despite taking at least three different types of high blood pressure drugs, one of which usually should be a diuretic, you may have resistant hypertension.
You're also considered to have resistant hypertension if you have controlled high blood pressure but are taking four different types of medications at the same time to achieve that control. If you do, your doctor should investigate the possibility of a secondary cause of the high blood pressure.
Having resistant hypertension doesn't mean your blood pressure will never get lower. If you and your doctor can determine the cause, a more effective treatment plan can be created to help you meet your goal blood pressure.
Treating resistant hypertension may involve many steps, including:
Changing your high blood pressure medications to determine which combinations and doses work best
Reviewing all the medications you take, including those that you take for other conditions or buy without a prescription
Monitoring your blood pressure at home to see if going to the doctor causes your blood pressure to increase (white coat hypertension)
Making healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet with less salt, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol
You should always take blood pressure medications as prescribed. Never skip a dose or abruptly stop taking your blood pressure medication. Suddenly stopping certain blood pressure drugs, such as beta blockers, can cause a sharp increase in blood pressure (rebound hypertension).
If you skip doses because you can't afford the medications, because you have side effects or because you simply forget to take your medications, talk to your doctor about solutions. Don't change your treatment without your doctor's guidance.
Potential future treatments
Researchers continue to study catheter-based ultrasound and radiofrequency ablation of the kidney's sympathetic nerves (renal denervation) as a treatment for resistant hypertension. Early studies showed some benefit, but more-robust studies found that the therapy does not significantly lower blood pressure in people with resistant hypertension. More research is underway to determine what role, if any, this therapy may have in treating hypertension.
Current research & peer reviewed journals
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