The Basics: Overview
Nearly half of 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’re age 40 or older, or if you’re at higher risk for high blood pressure, get your blood pressure checked once a year
- If you’re age 18 to 39 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’re 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’s 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 when your heart relaxes between beats.
Compare your blood pressure to these numbers:
- Normal blood pressure is lower than 120/80 (said “120 over 80”)
- High blood pressure is 130/80 or higher
- Blood pressure that’s between normal and high (for example, 125/80) 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 takes just 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 it’s a good idea to get it checked 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?
If you’re pregnant, high blood pressure can be dangerous for you and your 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. This type of high blood pressure usually goes away after the baby is born — but you may have a higher risk of getting high blood pressure in the future.
If you have high blood pressure while you’re pregnant, be sure to visit your doctor regularly. To learn more:
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.
Take these steps to lower your blood pressure:
- Eat healthy, including foods that are low in saturated fat and sodium (salt). Get healthy eating tips.
- Get active — aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity. Use this resource to get more physical activity.
- Watch your weight by eating healthy and getting active. Learn how to stay at a healthy weight.
- Remember to take medicines as prescribed (ordered) by your doctor. Learn more about blood pressure medicines.
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. Print out this list of questions to ask your doctor about blood pressure.
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 - 663 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 cost?
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover blood pressure testing. Depending on your insurance plan, 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 more.
Medicare also covers blood pressure testing at no cost as part of your yearly wellness visit. Learn more about Medicare wellness visits.
If you don’t have insurance, you may still be able to get free or low-cost blood pressure tests. Find a health center near you and ask about getting your blood pressure checked.
To learn more, check out these resources:
Take Action: Eat Healthy
Eat less sodium.
Eating less sodium (salt) can lower your blood pressure. Look for foods that say “low 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 a DV of 5% or less. 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, spinach, 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’re 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 150 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, drink only in moderation. That means 1 drink or less in a day for women and 2 drinks or less in 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 July 8, 2021
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