A hypertensive emergency is defined as a systolic blood pressure (SBP) of 180 mmHg or higher, or a diastolic blood pressure (DBP) of 120 mmHg or higher. This can lead to damage to the heart, brain, kidneys, and other organs. If left untreated, a hypertensive emergency can be fatal.
Target organ damage can include:
- Heart attack
- Encephalopathy (brain swelling)
- Acute kidney injury
- Aortic dissection (tear in the aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body)
- Eclampsia (a serious condition that can occur during pregnancy or shortly after delivery)
Symptoms of a Hypertensive Emergency
The symptoms of a hypertensive emergency can vary from person to person. Some people may have no symptoms at all, while others may experience the following:
- Severe headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blurred vision
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Causes of a Hypertensive Emergency
- Preeclampsia or eclampsia: Preeclampsia is a serious condition that can occur during pregnancy. It is characterized by high blood pressure, protein in the urine, and swelling in the hands, feet, and face. Eclampsia is a severe form of preeclampsia that can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.
- A pheochromocytoma: A pheochromocytoma is a rare tumor that produces too much of the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline can cause a sudden and dramatic increase in blood pressure.
- A cocaine overdose: Cocaine is a powerful stimulant that can cause a sudden and dramatic increase in blood pressure.
- Withdrawal from certain medications: Withdrawal from certain medications, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, can cause a sudden and dramatic increase in blood pressure.
- Certain medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease or hyperthyroidism, can increase the risk of developing a hypertensive emergency.
Treatment for a Hypertensive Emergency
The treatment for a hypertensive emergency will vary depending on the underlying cause. In general, however, the goal of treatment is to lower blood pressure quickly and safely. This may be done with medication, such as intravenous (IV) medications. In most cases, hospitalization may be necessary.
Prevention of a Hypertensive Emergency
There are a number of things you can do to help prevent a hypertensive emergency, including:
- Controlling your blood pressure if you have hypertension: Hypertension is the most common cause of hypertensive emergencies. By controlling your blood pressure, you can help reduce your risk of having a hypertensive emergency.
- Avoiding certain medications that can raise blood pressure: Certain medications, such as decongestants and cold medicines, can raise blood pressure. If you have hypertension, talk to your doctor about whether it is safe for you to take these medications.
- Managing stress: Stress can raise blood pressure. There are a number of things you can do to manage stress, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and yoga.
- Eating a healthy diet: Eating a healthy diet that is low in sodium and saturated fat can help lower blood pressure.
- Exercising regularly: Exercise can help lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of developing hypertension.
- Losing weight if you are overweight or obese: Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing hypertension. Losing weight can help lower blood pressure.
- Quitting smoking: Smoking can raise blood pressure. Quitting smoking can help lower blood pressure.
- Limiting alcohol intake: Alcohol can raise blood pressure. Limiting alcohol intake can help lower blood pressure.
If you have any of the risk factors of a hypertensive emergency, talk to your doctor about how to lower your risk.
A hypertensive emergency is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. If you experience any of the symptoms of a hypertensive emergency, call 112 or report to the nearest medical facility.