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Blood Pressure Information

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps out blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage the body in many ways.   About 1 in 3 adults in the United States has high blood pressure (HBP), also called hypertension. HBP itself usually has no symptoms. You can have it for years without knowing it. During this time, though, it can damage the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and other parts of your body.  This is why knowing your blood pressure numbers is important, even when you’re feeling fine. If your blood pressure is normal, you can work with your health care team to keep it that way. If your blood pressure is too high, you need treatment to prevent damage to your body’s organs.

How Is Blood Pressure Tested?

A blood pressure test is easy and painless. To measure your blood pressure, your doctor or nurse will use some type of a gauge, a stethoscope (or electronic sensor), and a blood pressure cuff.  Most often, you will sit or lie down with the cuff around your arm as your doctor or nurse checks your blood pressure. If he or she doesn’t tell you what your blood pressure numbers are, you should ask.  To prepare for the test:

  • Don’t drink coffee or smoke cigarettes for 30 minutes prior to the test. These actions may cause a short-term rise in your blood pressure.
  • Go to the bathroom before the test. Having a full bladder can change your blood pressure reading.
  • Sit for 5 minutes before the test. Movement can cause short-term rises in blood pressure.

What do Blood Pressure Numbers mean?

Blood pressure numbers include systolic (sis-TOL-ik) and diastolic (di-a-STOL-ik) pressures. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart beats while pumping blood. Diastolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats.
You will most often see blood pressure numbers written with the systolic number above or before the diastolic, such as 120/80 mmHg. (The mmHg is millimeters of mercury—the units used to measure blood pressure.)

The table below shows normal numbers for adults. It also shows which numbers put you at greater risk for health problems. Blood pressure tends to goes up and down, even in people who have normal blood pressure. If your numbers stay above normal most of the time, you’re at risk.

Categories for Blood Pressure Levels in Adults (in mmHg, or millimeters of mercury)


(top number)


(bottom number)


Less than 120


Less than 80





High blood pressure




     Stage 1




     Stage 2

160 or higher


100 or higher

All levels above 120/80 mmHg raise your risk, and the risk grows as blood pressure levels rise. “Prehypertension” means you’re likely to end up with HBP, unless you take steps to prevent it.  If you’re being treated for HBP and have repeat readings in the normal range, your blood pressure is under control. However, you still have the condition. You should see your doctor and stay on treatment to keep you blood pressure under control. 

Blood pressure tends to rise with age. Following a healthy lifestyle helps some people delay or prevent this rise in blood pressure.  People who have HBP can take steps to control it and reduce their risks for related health problems. Key steps include following a healthy lifestyle, having ongoing medical care, and following the treatment plan that your doctor prescribes.

What are the health consequences of high blood pressure for adults?

High blood pressure (HBP) is a serious condition that can lead to:

  • Coronary Heart Disease
  • Heart Attack
  • Stroke
  • Aneurysm
  • Kidney Failure
  • Blindness

How Can High Blood Pressure Be Prevented and Controlled?

If You Have Normal Blood Pressure
If your blood pressure is normal, you can take steps to keep it that way.  Lifestyle measures can help you maintain normal blood pressure. 

  • Follow a healthy eating plan. This includes limiting the amount of sodium (salt) and alcohol that you consume.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese.
  • Do enough physical activity.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Manage your stress and learn to cope with stress.

Many people who take one or more of these steps are able to prevent or delay HBP.  The more steps you take, the more likely you are to lower your blood pressure and avoid related health problems.

If You Have High Blood Pressure
If you have HBP, you can still take steps to prevent the long-term problems it can cause. Lifestyle measures (listed above) and medicines can help you live a longer, more active life.  Follow the treatment plan your doctor prescribes to control your blood pressure. It can help you prevent or delay coronary heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and other health problems.


*  National Institute for Health, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute