High blood pressure | Mate pēhanga toto

Also known as hypertension

Key points about high blood pressure (hypertension)

  • High blood pressure (mate pēhanga toto) is a common condition in which the force of your blood against your artery walls is too high, too often.
  •  Ongoing high blood pressure puts stress on your heart and can lead to health problems, such as heart disease and stroke. 
  • You don't usually know that you have high blood pressure so get your blood pressure checked regularly. Your usual healthcare provider or pharmacist can do this for you.
Closeup of man's arm with blood pressure cuff and monitor
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  • At least 1 in 5 New Zealanders has high blood pressure, but most don't know they have it.
  • High blood pressure usually doesn't have symptoms, so the best way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to get your blood pressure checked regularly. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can do this for you.
  • Untreated high blood pressure can cause serious problems such as stroke, heart attack and kidney failure.
  • You can manage high blood pressure through healthy lifestyle choices and medications if needed.
  • If you need medicine for blood pressure, take it every day as prescribed. If you have any questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Blood pressure (pēhanga toto) is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Read more about blood pressure.

Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury (which is written as mmHg). Blood pressure readings are a combination of two measurements:

  • Systolic – the highest pressure against your arteries as your heart pumps. The normal systolic pressure is usually between 110–130 mmHg.
  • Diastolic – the pressure against your arteries as your heart relaxes and fills with blood. The normal diastolic pressure is usually between 70–80 mmHg.

High blood pressure may be considered to be 140/90 mmHg or higher. However, it is difficult to give an example of a high blood pressure reading, because it depends on the individual. The level of blood pressure that is high for you depends on lots of different factors and your overall risk of heart attack or stroke. Generally, the lower your blood pressure, the better. If you have a history of heart disease, diabetes or a high risk of heart attack or stroke, it's recommended you lower your blood pressure to less than 130/80. 

A single high blood pressure reading does not necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure. It's normal for your blood pressure to rise and fall during the day, depending on what you have been doing (eg, exercise) and how you are feeling (eg, stressed).

You are usually considered to have high blood pressure if your blood pressure stays high for 3 separate readings, over at least 3 months. For some people, doing measurements at home with a machine can be more accurate than doing it in the clinic with your doctor or nurse. 

To find out if you need to do something about your blood pressure levels, visit your doctor and have a heart and diabetes check. In your heart and diabetes check, your doctor, nurse or other health professional will discuss your ideal blood pressure, taking into account your overall risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Over time, high blood pressure damages your blood vessels. It can lead to the following complications.

Complications of having high blood pressure  Description
Heart attack


High blood pressure damages arteries that can become blocked and prevent blood flow to the heart muscle.
Angina High blood pressure can lead to heart disease or microvascular disease, of which angina, or chest pain, is a common symptom.
Stroke High blood pressure can cause blood vessels in your brain to clog more easily or even burst.
Heart failure The increased workload from high blood pressure can cause your heart to enlarge and fail to supply blood to your body.
Kidney disease or kidney failure High blood pressure can damage the arteries around your kidneys and interfere with their ability to filter blood effectively.
Eyesight problems High blood pressure can strain or damage blood vessels in your eyes and can lead to loss of vision.
Peripheral artery disease  Atherosclerosis caused by high blood pressure can cause a narrowing of arteries in your legs, arms, stomach and head, causing pain or fatigue.
Sexual problems High blood pressure can lead to erectile dysfunction in men or lower libido in women.

Image credit: 123RF

High blood pressure often runs in families. Sometimes kidney or glandular disease may be responsible. However, eating too much salt, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight and not moving around enough each day can also contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.

The effects of high blood pressure on your blood vessels are worsened by:

  • cigarette smoking
  • high levels of saturated fat in your diet
  • high blood cholesterol.

Some medicines may cause raised blood pressure or make controlling it more difficult. These medicines include:

  • the combined contraceptive pill
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
  • some nasal drops and sprays
  • some cough medicines, eye drops and appetite suppressants.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist for alternatives.

Every adult should have your blood pressure checked regularly. The age you are advised to start having heart and diabetes checks depends on your age, ethnicity and other risk factors. 

Risk factors Age to start having heart and diabetes checks

If you have no known risk factors

Men: 45 years
Women: 55 years

If you are Māori, Pasifika or South Asian1

Men: 30 years
Women: 40 years

If you have the following risk factors:

  • you smoke
  • you have a family history of diabetes, high cholesterol, heart attack or stroke2
  • you have gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or prediabetes
  • you are overweight3
  • you have kidney disease
  • you have high blood pressure or cholesterol
  • you have previously had a heart trouble or stroke
  • you have a heart condition such as atrial fibrillation.
Men: 35 years
Women: 45 years

If you have diabetes (type 1 or 2)

As part of your yearly diabetes review

If you have schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or other severe mental illness

25 years
  1. South-Asian peoples: Indian, including Fijian Indian, Sri Lankan, Afghan people, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Pakistani, Tibetan
  2. Family history: Parent, brother or sister
  3. Overweight: BMI ≥ 30 or weight around your tummy (waist circumference ≥ 102 cm in men or ≥ 88 cm in women)

Read more about heart risk assessment.

High blood pressure does not usually have any symptoms, so the only way to find out if you have it is to get your blood pressure checked by your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. They will often take several readings over weeks or months to see what the trend is.

Your doctor may suggest 24-hour blood pressure monitoring. This involves wearing a blood pressure unit for up to 24 hours to collect a series of blood pressure and heart-rate readings at different times of the day and night. Read more about 24-hour blood pressure monitoring(external link)(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ

Your doctor will work out your five-year risk of cardiovascular disease (eg, heart attack or stroke) to work out the likely benefits of blood pressure-lowering interventions.

If you have low risk, following the self-care steps listed below, such as stopping smoking, eating a balanced diet, less salt, less alcohol and becoming more physically active, may be enough. If your risk is higher, you are likely to need medication as well as following the self-care steps.

Self-care for high blood pressure

  • Stop smoking  quitting is the most important step to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. The more overweight you are, the more strain you put on your heart and cardiovascular system. For some people, losing 5–10kg of excess weight is enough to get your blood pressure back to normal. Check with your doctor, nurse or pharmacist as to what is right for you.
  • Eat a balanced diet low in saturated fat with whole grains, 8 servings of coloured vegetables and fruit, and 2 to 3 servings of low-fat milk or milk products a day. Learn more about the DASH eating plan(external link)(external link) to lower high blood pressure.
  • Eat less salt – use herbs, spices, citrus and vinegar for flavouring and dressings, choose low-salt versions of packaged foods, avoid pickled food and salty or fatty takeaway foods. Read more about reducing salt intake [PDF, 255 KB]
  • Limit alcohol consumption and follow recommended guidelines for low-risk drinking.
  • Be active every day. Find ways to put a little bit more activity in your day at every opportunity. Take the stairs at work. Park 5 minutes further away. Aim to get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week. Walking, cycling and swimming are ideal. Find an activity you enjoy so you can keep it up. Find out more about getting active.
  • Avoid eating large quantities of liquorice – it contains a chemical that can raise blood pressure. 

See also these tips for lowering blood pressure.

Medicines for high blood pressure

Medications can help control high blood pressure and reduce the damage from high blood pressure, but they do not cure it. Usually, medication will need to be taken for life, unless losing weight and the lifestyle changes are so successful that your blood pressure returns to normal levels without medication.

There a variety of medicines that can be used to lower blood pressure. Each of these groups of medicines works differently. Sometimes 2 or 3 medications are needed and it may take time to find the right combination and dosage. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any side effects you may have and  follow instructions carefully.

Examples of medicines to treat blood pressure include:

  • ACE inhibitors such as cilazapril, lisinopril, quinapril, enalapril, perindopril.
  • ARBs such as candesartan, losartan.
  • Beta blockers such as bisoprolol, metoprolol, propranolol.
  • Calcium channel blockers such as amlodipine, diltiazem, felodipine.
  • Diuretics (also called water pills) such as bendroflumethiazide, chlortalidone, indapamide.

Read more about medicines to treat blood pressure.

Because high blood pressure puts you at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, you may also be prescribed other medicines to help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, such as:

High blood pressure is one of the most common health problems as people get older. With a little effort, there is much you can do to reduce your risk of getting high blood pressure and the increased risk of stroke and heart disease that goes with that.

Keep to a healthy body weight

One of the key risk factors for high blood pressure is being overweight. Being overweight(external link) can make you 2 to 6 times more likely to develop high blood pressure than if you are in the normal weight range. Even small amounts of weight loss(external link) can make a big difference in helping to prevent and treat high blood pressure. 

Be active regularly

People who are physically active have a lower risk of getting high blood pressure (20–50% lower) than people who are not active. Even light activities, if done daily, can help lower your risk. Add more activity to your day. Aim to get 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. Walking, cycling and swimming are ideal. Find an activity you enjoy so you can keep it up.

Look for opportunities to add a few minutes here and there – it all helps. Take the stairs whenever you can, park 5 minutes further from work, go for a walk at lunchtime or when you get home. Read more about getting active

Eat a balanced diet

Your diet – what you eat and drink – has a real effect on your heart and blood pressure. The more healthy your eating habits are, the lower your blood pressure will be. A heart healthy diet is low in saturated fat, whole grains, 8 servings of coloured vegetables and fruit, and 2 to 3 servings of low-fat milk or milk products a day. Read more about healthy eating

Eat less salt

Cutting back on salt also helps prevent your blood pressure from rising. Reduce your sodium intake to 2300mg of sodium a day (about 6g salt) or less. This includes sodium from processed food. Use herbs, spices, fruit and vinegar for flavouring and dressings. If you have pre-prepared foods, avoid pickled food and avoid salty or fatty takeaway foods. Read more about reducing your salt intake [PDF, 255 KB]

Limit how much alcohol you drink

Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Limit how much alcohol you drink and follow recommended guidelines for low-risk drinking. 

Quit smoking

Being smokefree is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. While smoking does not directly affect your blood pressure, it will cause your arteries to narrow just as high blood pressure does. This puts you at much higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

So, if you smoke and have high blood pressure, your arteries will narrow much more quickly and your risk of a heart attack or stroke in the future is dramatically increased. Because of this, as well as for all the other effects it has on your health, it well worth giving up smoking. Read more about quitting smoking

Reduce stress

Stress can make blood pressure go up, and over time may contribute to the cause of high blood pressure. There are many steps you can take to reduce your stress. Read more about managing stress

Avoid eating large quantities of liquorice

Liquorice contains a chemical that can raise blood pressure. Eating more than 57g of black liquorice a day for at least 2 weeks could lead to potentially serious health problems, such as an increase in blood pressure and an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia).(external link)

For most people, liquorice found in foods is safe to eat and safe when consumed in small amounts for short periods of time.

The Stroke Foundation has developed He taonga, a tool to help you and your whanau maintain a healthy blood pressure and improve your hauora. He taonga is a 6-week online programme designed to provide you with the support and motivation to make lifestyle changes. The programme is delivered through weekly emails that contain advice, support and links to videos and resources.

Check out the free He taonga programme.(external link)(external link)

DASH(external link)(external link) Eating plan to lower high blood pressure
High blood pressure personal stories(external link)(external link) Health Talk online
Managing high blood pressure(external link) Heart Foundation NZ
High blood pressure(external link)(external link) NHS, UK
Family health history(external link)(external link) Learn Genetics (Genetic Science Learning Centre), University of Utah, US, 2015
High blood pressure and the cardiovascular system(external link)(external link) Watch, Learn, Live – Interactive Cardiovascular Library, American Heart Association



Blood pressure information sheet(external link)(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ, 2019 English(external link)(external link), te reo Māori(external link)(external link), Tongan(external link)(external link), Chinese (traditional)(external link)(external link), Hindi(external link)(external link), Korean(external link)(external link)
Managing high blood pressure(external link)(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ, 2019
24 hour blood pressure monitoring(external link)(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ


There are a variety of blood pressure apps available but not all blood pressure apps are safe. Here is a blood pressure tracking app the Healthify team have reviewed.

Other apps

Heart age forecast(external link)(external link)
Stroke Riskometer app


  1. Managing high blood pressure(external link)(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ 
  2. Health threats from high blood pressure(external link)(external link) American Heart Association, 2016
  3. Blood pressure (high) – hypertension(external link)(external link) Better Health Channel, Australia, 2011
  4. What's my risk of a heart attack or stroke?(external link)(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ
  5. Blood pressure and hypertension in New Zealand – results from the 2008/09 Adult Nutrition Survey(external link)(external link) NZ Med J. 2013 April 5;126(1372).
  6. NZ health survey 2018/19(external link)(external link) Ministry of Health, NZ, 2019
  7. High blood pressure prevention(external link) WebMD, US, 2019
  8. Sodium position statement(external link) Heart Foundation, NZ
  9. Can eating too much black liquorice be bad for you?(external link) NHS, UK, 2018

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Hari Talreja, Specialist Renal and Hypertension Services, Auckland

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