Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Reducing your blood pressure can make a big difference to your health.

Reducing your blood pressure can make a big difference to your health.
beginning of content

High blood pressure (hypertension)

6-minute read

As blood is pumped by the heart around the body, the pressure with which it pushes against the walls of blood vessels changes.

When the heart is squeezing blood into the arteries, the pressure is high.

When the heart is relaxed, the pressure is lower.

Your blood pressure is a measurement taken of the highest reading and the lowest reading. It is given as two figures — highest (systolic) over lowest (diastolic).

  • Systolic — pressure in the artery as the heart contracts. This is represented by the top, higher number.
  • Diastolic — pressure in the artery when the heart is rleaxing and being filled with blood. This is represented by the bottom, lower number.

What is high blood pressure?

Your blood pressure is high if the reading is higher than 140/90 mm/Hg and is considered to then put you at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke (cardiovascular disease). Having a blood pressure below this figure is even better in terms of reducing cardiovascular risk.

That is, you have high blood pressure if the higher figure (systolic) is higher than 140, or the lower figure (diastolic) is higher than 90, or both.

This is also known as hypertension. More than one-third of Australians over the age of 18 have high blood pressure.

There are lower blood pressure targets of less than 130/80 mmHg for people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and other associated clinical conditions.

Why is your blood pressure important?

Your blood pressure is important because if it is too high, it affects the blood flow to your organs. Over the years, this increases your chances of developing heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, diabetes, eye disease, erectile dysfunction and other conditions.

Very occasionally, people with very high blood pressure are at serious risk of problems and need urgent treatment in hospital to reduce the risk of a stroke or heart attack.

Current Australian guidelines recommend that if you have persistent raised blood pressure over 160/100, but are at low risk of having a stroke or heart attack, you should talk to your doctor or specialist about taking medication to lower your blood pressure.

For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

If you’re over 18, you should have your blood pressure checked by your doctor at least every two years, or more often if advised.

What causes high blood pressure?

For most people, the cause of high blood pressure is not known. This is known as ‘essential’ or ‘primary’ hypertension. 

But while the cause is not known, it is clear that various conditions and behaviour make high blood pressure more likely. These are known as risk factors, and include:

  • leading a sedentary lifestyle (with little or no exercise)
  • smoking
  • being overweight
  • a diet with a high salt intake
  • high blood cholesterol
  • a family history of high blood pressure
  • high alcohol consumption
  • diabetes
  • high salt intake

In a few people, there is an identifiable cause such as narrowing of the arteries of the kidney (renal stenosis) or some hormonal conditions.

What are the symptoms of high blood pressure?

Most people with high blood pressure have no symptoms, and may feel quite well. This is why it’s important to see your doctor and have your blood pressure checked regularly, especially if you have one or more of the risk factors listed above.

A few people with very high blood pressure may experience headache, dizziness or the sudden effects of diseases of the arteries such as chest pain or stroke.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Diagnosing high blood pressure

Your blood pressure varies from day to day, even moment to moment. Generally, if a person has a blood pressure reading greater than 140/90 taken on three different occasions, they have high blood pressure. Your doctor may ask you to monitor your blood pressure at home, or wear a monitor over a 24-hour period, to see how it varies and to make sure they get an accurate reading.

What is the treatment for high blood pressure?

Mild high blood pressure can often be treated by lifestyle changes, including:

  • doing regular physical activity
  • stopping smoking
  • improving your diet to reduce salt, reduce fat and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • losing weight
  • limiting your alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day for men, or one drink per day for women with high blood pressure

Lifestyle changes may not be enough. Some people also need medication to help reduce blood pressure levels to normal. While medicines are usually very effective at lowering blood pressure, they may cause side effects in some people.

Usually doctors will start a person on a low dose of a medicine and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work well enough, or if there are troublesome side effects, other medicines will be used, sometimes in combination, until the blood pressure is controlled. This can take time. Some people will take medicines for life, although others will find that continuing to lose weight and change their diet reduces the need for medicines.

Someone whose blood pressure is very high or causing symptoms such as headache, or if they have conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, may need urgent treatment with medicines to bring the blood pressure down to normal levels.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommends that you regularly review with your doctor or specialist any medications you are taking for high blood pressure or high cholesterol to assess the ongoing benefits and risks. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

Preventing high blood pressure

If you can follow a healthy diet, keep to a healthy weight and avoid smoking, you will reduce your chances of having high blood pressure.

More information

There are a number of resources and services available if you need help or more information on high blood pressure:

Last reviewed: August 2018

Recommended links

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

High blood pressure and salt

If you have high blood pressure, lowering your salt intake may reduce your blood pressure.

Read more on Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute website

High blood pressure

Blood pressure is the pressure of your blood against the inner walls of your arteries as it is pumped around the body by your heart.

Read more on WA Health website

High blood pressure treatments - myDr.com.au

If you have high blood pressure your doctor may recommend lifestyle measures, such as diet and exercise, and possibly also medicines to control your blood pressure. Find out about the different options.

Read more on myDr website

Hypertension (high blood pressure) information | myVMC

Hypertension or high blood pressure is the leading cause globally of death and disability. It is associated with heart attack and kidney disease.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

High blood pressure (hypertension) information video | myVMC

High blood pressure or hypertension can be managed through regular exercise, healthy eating with low sodium foods (low salt diet) and weight loss.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

High blood pressure should be treated - myDr.com.au

Having hypertension (high blood pressure) increases your risk of serious conditions such as stroke and heart attack. Find out when to have your blood pressure checked and what to do if yours is high.

Read more on myDr website

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure): Overview | myVMC

Hypertension is defined as elevated blood pressure and is the leading cause globally of death and disability.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

What causes high blood pressure | The Heart Foundation

Learn about what causes high blood pressure, its symptoms and diagnosis. How to control high blood pressure and manage medicines.

Read more on Heart Foundation website

Beta blockers: Medicines for high blood pressure

Read more on Heart Foundation website

Pulmonary hypertension information | myVMC

Pulmonary arterial hypertension refers to high blood pressure in the vessels of the lungs. It is associated with lung diseases like COPD.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice and information you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo