When your blood pressure is high, it shouldn't be ignored. However, there's little you can do to lower your blood pressure quickly without medical assistance. Most non-medication strategies, like changing your diet, take days to weeks or months to have an effect.
The only safe and effective way to quickly lower your blood pressure on your own is to rest and relax. If this doesn't help, call your doctor or seek immediate medical care, depending on how high your blood pressure is.
What's Considered High Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force exerted by blood as it pushes against the walls of your blood vessels. It's generally reported as two numbers: an upper number, called the systolic pressure, and a lower number, called the diastolic pressure. Normal blood pressure in adults is 120/80.
The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) guidelines published in 2017 define high blood pressure as 130/80 or higher. And chronic, long-term high blood pressure increases your likelihood of a heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and kidney disease.
High blood pressure statistics show hypertension affects nearly half of all adults in the U.S. — but an estimated 1 in 3 don't know they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Read more: How to Understand Your Blood Pressure Numbers
Dangers of High Blood Pressure
Moderate increases in blood pressure for a few minutes won't affect most people. But harmful effects may occur when moderate increases are more sustained or when your blood pressure is very high — defined as more than 180 mm Hg systolic or more than 120 mm Hg diastolic in the ACC/AHA guidelines.
When your blood pressure rises, your heart is working harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. This may lead to heart failure or a heart attack, especially in people with heart disease. Furthermore, the extra force exerted by blood may cause blood vessels to burst, resulting in bleeding. Blood vessels in the brain are especially likely to rupture, which can lead to a stroke.
In other instances, the blood vessels don't burst, but fluid within the vessels leaks into the surrounding tissue, causing swelling of the brain. This produces another life-threatening condition called hypertensive encephalopathy.
The aorta — the large blood vessel carrying blood from your heart — can also be affected. A tear in the aorta wall, called aortic dissection, may cause immediate or delayed rupture of the aorta.
How to Lower Blood Pressure Fast
If you do notice that your blood pressure is high, there are two first steps before you call your doctor (unless your BP is over 180/120 or you also experience any of the symptoms listed below). Follow this outline if your only symptom is high blood pressure.
1. Double Check the Measurement
Obtaining an accurate blood pressure measurement requires following the instructions exactly. Each blood pressure machine used at home or in a store will have its own set of instructions for proper use.
It's especially important to place the blood pressure cuff in the correct location and keep your arm in the recommended position. If your initial blood pressure reading is high, re-read the instructions, make any necessary adjustments, and then take your blood pressure again. Make sure enough time has past in between readings that you're not repeatedly squeezing the same arm in a short amount of time.
Read more: 8 High-Tech Gadgets to Keep Your Heart Healthy
2. Rest and Relax
If your blood pressure remains high after repeating the measurement, the next thing to do is to sit or lie down and try to relax your mind. Many people find that taking slow deep breaths will help them relax. Don't fixate on the number, as that may cause additional anxiety.
Both physical exertion and mental stress stimulate your body to release adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are chemicals called catecholamines that will increase your blood pressure.
Fortunately, the effects of catecholamines are very short-lived. Indeed, about half of the catecholamines released into your bloodstream will automatically exit the blood in less than two minutes, according to the medical textbook Endocrinology E-Book: Adult and Pediatric.
So if you immediately rest and relax, your catecholamine levels will fall and your blood pressure should begin to decrease in a few minutes. If physical or mental stress was the main reason for your high blood pressure, reversing the stress should return your pressure to normal.
3. Seeking Medical Attention
If your blood pressure is 130/80 or higher, contact your doctor. Depending on your situation and the level of your blood pressure, your doctor may recommend an appointment, further investigations, non-medication strategies, initiation of blood pressure medications or changes in your medications.
Seek immediate medical attention if you have very high blood pressure, especially if your systolic pressure is more than 180 mm Hg or your diastolic pressure is above 120 mm Hg.
Even if your numbers aren't that high, seek immediate care if your high blood pressure is accompanied by any other symptoms, including the following:
- Chest or back pain
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Difficulty speaking
4. Talk to Your Doctor About Prescription Medications
A number of prescription medications can quickly lower your blood pressure. Very strong medications administered through a vein — which are used only in hospitals — will lower your blood pressure almost immediately. Blood pressure pills are slower-acting, but they should begin to work within an hour.
Blood pressure medications should only be taken according to your doctor's instructions. Never take another person's blood pressure medication and never take an extra or early dose of your own medications unless advised to do so by your doctor. All blood pressure medications can cause dangerously low blood pressure when taken by the wrong person or when taken in excess or too early.
5. Develop a Long-Term Blood Pressure Control Plan
Getting your blood pressure under control on a day-to-day basis is the best way to avoid the need to lower your blood pressure quickly. Besides taking medications prescribed your doctor, the 2017 ACC/AHA guidelines recommend the following:
the DASH (Dietary Changes to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is high in fruits,
vegetables and low-fat dairy products
- Reducing salt intake
- Increasing potassium intake
- Reducing alcohol intake
The guidelines list several other strategies that may be helpful, although there is less scientific evidence of their effectiveness:
intake of protein, fiber, fish oil and flaxseed
calcium and magnesium supplements
- Following other healthy diets, such as low carbohydrate, Mediterranean and vegetarian diets
Is This an Emergency?
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Hypertensive Emergencies
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Overview of Hypertension
- Merck Manual Consumer Version: High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
- Hypertension: 2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults
- Endocrinology E-Book: Adult and Pediatric; J. Larry Jameson and Leslie J. De Groot
- MedScape: Hypertensive Encephalopathy
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Aortic Dissection
- CDC: 5 Surprising Facts About High Blood Pressure