What is high blood pressure (hypertension)?

Reviewed by:
Angela DiLaura, NP
Clinical Informatics and Quality Manager
Last updated on December 13, 2021

The easiest way to explain hypertension, or high blood pressure, is that it’s what happens when the force of blood against your artery walls is too great.

To understand high blood pressure and its causes, though, we have to go a little deeper. That’s why we put together this guide to teach you everything you need to know about high blood pressure, its causes, and how to prevent and treat it.

How normal blood pressure keeps you alive

Red blood cells carry oxygen to all the organs and tissues in your body—this is how they (and you) survive. And in order to make the trip from your heart to all the areas in your body and back again, you need a significant amount of force.

So: blood pressure.

Your heart pumps out oxygenated blood that gets squeezed through your blood vessels. This pressurization allows it to travel through your body relatively quickly.

Systolic and diastolic pressure

You’ve probably had your blood pressure taken at the doctor’s office before and heard the doctor or nurse say something like, “120 over 80” (often written as 120/80). What does that mean?

The “120” in this case is your systolic pressure—the maximum amount of pressure your heart produces when it pumps out blood. The “80” is your diastolic pressure—the amount of pressure that’s measured in between heartbeats.

Generally speaking:

  • “Normal” blood pressure is 120/80 or less.

  • Elevated is between 120/80 and 130/80.

  • High is between 130/80 and 140/90.

And blood pressure that’s 180/120 is considered severe. You can learn more about systolic and diastolic pressure here.

How high blood pressure causes damage

When blood circulates through your body with too much force, it creates friction against the walls of your blood vessels. Over time, that friction can cause small tears.

LDL cholesterol (the bad kind of cholesterol) swoops in to patch those tears with plaque. In theory, that sounds good. The tear is patched, so problem solved, right? Not exactly.

That plaque takes up space in your blood vessel, which means blood has to work harder to get through. That means your heart has to work harder, and that means more pressure. In that way, it’s like a snowball effect.

High blood pressure can lead to a litany of complications including:

  • Heart attack.

  • Heart disease.

  • Loss of vision.

  • Stroke.

  • Kidney disease.

  • Sexual dysfunction.

What causes high blood pressure in the first place?

Damaged blood vessels don’t just happen, of course. Certain conditions have to be present. 

A few risk factors that can affect your blood pressure:

  • Age.

  • Over consumption of alcohol.

  • Race.

  • Family history.

  • Being overweight or obese.

  • Lack of physical activity.

  • Tobacco use.

  • High sodium intake.

  • Stress.

  • Pregnancy.

The good news is that several of these factors are within your control. And even for the ones that aren’t, many things can be done to manage high blood pressure.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

You may hear of high blood pressure referred to as the “silent killer.” That’s because symptoms can be easily missed and are often non-existent. Hypertension often goes undiagnosed for long periods of time, which can lead to bigger problems. 

That’s why it’s so important to have regular check-ups with your doctor—especially if you fall into any of the risk-factor categories listed above.

HealthTap doctors can help with all aspects of blood pressure prevention and management.

How is high blood pressure treated?

In many cases, you can prevent or help treat high blood pressure with simple lifestyle changes:

  • Exercise.

  • Maintain a healthy diet.

  • Watch your sodium intake.

  • Quit smoking.

  • Take steps to reduce your stress.

More advanced cases may require medication like guanfacine. There are many to choose from — your HealthTap doctor who knows your medical history can help choose the right one for you.

Can an online doctor help with high blood pressure?

Yes. Your HealthTap doctor is a great place to start.

Our doctors can assess your risk for high blood pressure and help determine which stage of hypertension (if any) you’re in. They can help you create a wellness plan to prevent or manage high blood pressure and, if necessary, they can write prescriptions and electronically send them to your nearest pharmacy.

If you have questions or think you may be at risk for high blood pressure, schedule an appointment with your online doctor

Don’t let your hypertension go unnoticed. A doctor and treatment is one tap away. 

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap articles are reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Visit https://www.healthtap.com/about-doctors/ to learn more and meet some of the medical editorial board members behind our blog. The information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. HealthTap is a virtual-first, affordable urgent- and primary-care clinic, providing top-quality physician care nationwide to Americans with or without insurance. Our proprietary, easy-to-use, and innovative apps and electronic medical record apply Silicon Valley standards to effectively engage consumers and doctors online to increase the equity, accessibility, and efficiency of ongoing medical care for consumers, providers, employers, and payers. In addition, with HealthTap, businesses can offer virtual primary care to employees for less than the cost of free coffee. HealthTap's US-based board-certified physicians are available throughout North America. For more information, visit www.healthtap.com.
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