Most people think of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, as a condition that affects older people. But high blood pressure actually affects people of all ages -- including young children.
Why is high blood pressure in children a growing problem? What can you do to protect your child from this threat? The first step is to learn all you can about high blood pressure in children, its causes, consequences, and treatment.
What Is High Blood Pressure in Children?
Blood pressure is the force of blood as it flows through the body's vessels. Under normal conditions, the heart pumps blood through the vessels all over the body. The vessels widen and contract as needed to keep blood flowing well. In a person with hypertension, however, the blood pushes too hard against the blood vessels, which can cause damage to blood vessels, the heart, and other organs.
It's easy for adults to tell if they have high blood pressure simply by having blood pressure checks and comparing the numbers to a simple chart. Children have the same tests; however, interpreting the numbers is trickier. Your child's doctor will use charts based on your child's sex, height, and blood pressure numbers to determine whether or not your child has high blood pressure.
How High Blood Pressure Affects Children
As in adults, high blood pressure in children can result in serious, long-term health effects, including:
Obesity and High Blood Pressure in Children
Risk factors for high blood pressure in children include obesity and a family history of high blood pressure. Other risk factors may include medical problems such as sleep apnea or other sleep disorders.
Obesity is considered the primary risk for high blood pressure in children. Not only does being obese put your child at risk for high blood pressure, but also for a range of other health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
What Causes Obesity?
Sometimes obesity can be linked to other health problems. In most cases, though, obesity is due to the combination of two factors:
- Too much food. Many kids eat more food than their bodies require. Obesity can also result when a child's diet is full of the wrong types of food, such as unhealthy snacks and sugary beverages. For that reason, it is important to keep an eye on the quality as well as the quantity of the food your child consumes.
- Too little activity. Many children do not exercise enough and spend hours every day engaged in sedentary activities, like watching television or playing video games.
Treating High Blood Pressure in Children
Researchers are still trying to determine the most effective way to treat high blood pressure in children. In general, treating high blood pressure in kids is not that different from treating it in adults. Work closely with your child's doctor to find which treatment plan will work best for your child. Here are some general guidelines:
- Follow the DASH eating plan. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet plan includes eating less fat and saturated fat as well as eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain foods. Limiting salt intake can also help lower a child's blood pressure. A dietitian can help you and your child find ways to meet these goals without giving up favorite foods or great flavor.
- Watch your child's weight. Being overweight increases the risk of developing high blood pressure. Following the DASH eating plan and getting regular exercise can help your child lose weight. Ask your child's doctor to help set goals for losing weight. Your child's doctor can also refer you to other health care professionals for assistance in setting up a weight-loss plan.
- Avoid tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke can make blood pressure rise; it can also directly damage your child's heart and blood vessels. Protect your child from tobacco smoke -- even secondhand smoke.
Taking medications. If your child's high blood pressure is severe or doesn't respond to lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe medication. It may take a while to find a combination of drugs that works best to control high blood pressure with the least side effects. Drugs used to treat high blood pressure include:
- Diuretics to reduce the amount of fluid in the blood by helping the body rid itself of extra sodium.
- ACE inhibitors, alpha-blockers, and calcium channel blockers help keep the blood vessels from tightening up.
- Beta-blockers prevent the body from making the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline is a stress hormone. It makes the heart beat harder and faster. It also makes blood vessels tighten. All of this makes blood pressure higher.
How to Help Your Child With High Blood Pressure
Help your child control high blood pressure by following the doctor's plan carefully. In addition, you can take these steps.
- Limit the amount of time your child spends playing video games and watching TV.
- Make changes to diet and exercise a family affair. Everyone in the family will benefit from these healthy changes.
- Make sure your child has his or her blood pressure checked as often as recommended by your child's doctor.
By working with your health specialist to develop a comprehensive health plan, you can help your child control high blood pressure -- and enjoy many healthy years ahead.