The Basics: Overview
One in 3 American adults have high blood pressure. High blood pressure increases your risk for serious health problems, including stroke and heart attack.
Get your blood pressure checked regularly starting at age 18 – and do your best to keep track of your blood pressure numbers.
How often do I need to get my blood pressure checked?
- If you are age 40 or older, or if you are at higher risk for high blood pressure, get your blood pressure checked once a year.
- If you are age 18 to 40 and you aren’t at increased risk for high blood pressure, get your blood pressure checked every 3 to 5 years.
What puts me at higher risk for high blood pressure?
Your risk for high blood pressure goes up as you get older. You are also at increased risk for high blood pressure if you:
- Are African American
- Are overweight or have obesity
- Don’t get enough physical activity
- Drink too much alcohol
- Don’t eat a healthy diet
- Have kidney failure, diabetes, or some types of heart disease
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is how hard your blood pushes against the walls of your arteries when your heart pumps blood. Arteries are the tubes that carry blood away from your heart. Every time your heart beats, it pumps blood through your arteries to the rest of your body.
What is hypertension?
Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, so it’s sometimes called a “silent killer.” The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to get tested.
The Basics: How It's Measured
What do blood pressure numbers mean?
A blood pressure test measures how hard your heart is working to pump blood through your body.
Blood pressure is measured with 2 numbers. The first number is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number is the pressure in your arteries between beats, when your heart relaxes.
Compare your blood pressure to these numbers:
- Normal blood pressure is lower than 120/80 (said “120 over 80”).
- High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher.
- Blood pressure that’s between normal and high (for example, 130/85) is called elevated blood pressure or prehypertension.
How can I get my blood pressure checked?
To test your blood pressure, a nurse or doctor will put a cuff around your upper arm. The nurse or doctor will pump the cuff with air until it feels tight, then slowly let it out. This won't take more than a few minutes.
You can find out what your blood pressure numbers are right after the test is over. If the test shows that your blood pressure is high, ask the doctor what to do next.
Blood pressure can go up and down, so you may need to get it checked it more than once.
Can I check my blood pressure by myself?
Yes. Many shopping malls, pharmacies, and grocery stores have blood pressure machines you can use in the store. You can also buy a home blood pressure monitor at a drug store. If the test shows that your blood pressure is high, talk to your doctor.
The Basics: Pregnancy
How can high blood pressure affect pregnancy?
High blood pressure can be dangerous for a pregnant woman and her unborn baby. If you have high blood pressure and you want to get pregnant, it’s important to take steps to lower your blood pressure first.
Sometimes, women get high blood pressure for the first time during pregnancy. This is called gestational hypertension. Usually, this type of high blood pressure goes away after the baby is born.
If you have high blood pressure while you are pregnant, be sure to visit your doctor regularly.
The Basics: High Blood Pressure
What if I have high blood pressure?
If you have high blood pressure, you may need medicine to control it.
Print out this list of questions to ask your doctor about blood pressure.
Take these steps to lower your blood pressure:
- Eat healthy, including foods that are low in saturated fat and sodium (salt).
- Get active. Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity.
- Watch your weight by eating healthy and getting active.
- Remember to take medicines as prescribed (ordered) by your doctor.
Small changes can add up. For example, losing just 10 pounds can help lower your blood pressure.
Take Action: Get It Checked
To prevent or lower high blood pressure, start by getting your blood pressure checked as soon as possible.
Check your blood pressure regularly.
Make sure a doctor or nurse checks your blood pressure at your next visit. Write down your blood pressure numbers so you'll remember them.
You can also find blood pressure machines at many shopping malls, pharmacies, and grocery stores. Most of these machines are free to use. Print this tool to keep track of your blood pressure [PDF - 679 KB].
If you want to check your blood pressure at home, you can buy a home blood pressure monitor at a drug store. Get tips for checking your blood pressure at home.
What about the cost of testing?
Under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010, insurance plans must cover blood pressure testing. Depending on your insurance, you may be able to get your blood pressure checked by a doctor or nurse at no cost to you.
Check with your insurance company to find out what's included in your plan. Visit HealthCare.gov for information about other services covered under the Affordable Care Act.
Take Action: Eat Healthy
Eat less sodium.
Eating less sodium (salt) can lower your blood pressure. Look for foods that say “low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” or “no salt added.”
When you go food shopping, check the Nutrition Facts label for the Daily Value (DV) of sodium. Choose foods with 5% or less of the Daily Value of sodium. Foods with a DV of 20% or more are high in sodium.
Eating more potassium can also help lower your blood pressure. Good sources of potassium include potatoes, cantaloupe, bananas, beans, and yogurt.
Get more tips to:
Take Action: Get Active
Watch your weight.
A healthy diet and physical activity can help you control your weight – and your blood pressure. If you are overweight or you have obesity, losing weight can lower your risk for high blood pressure.
Getting regular physical activity can lower your risk of high blood pressure. Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate activity, like:
- Walking fast
- Riding bikes
Take Action: Healthy Habits
Drink alcohol only in moderation.
If you choose to drink alcohol, limit your drinking to no more than 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men.
Manage your stress.
Managing stress can help prevent and control high blood pressure. Deep breathing and meditation are good ways to relax and manage stress.
Smoking damages your heart and blood vessels. Quit smoking to help lower your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
Content last updated February 3, 2020
This information on blood pressure was adapted from materials from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
Paula T. Einhorn, M.D., M.S.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Institutes of Health