Damage to your eyes

Tiny, delicate blood vessels supply blood to your eyes. Like other vessels, they, too, can be damaged by high blood pressure:

  • Eye blood vessel damage (retinopathy). High blood pressure can damage the vessels supplying blood to your retina, causing retinopathy. This condition can lead to bleeding in the eye, blurred vision and complete loss of vision. If you also have both diabetes and high blood pressure, you're at an even greater risk.
  • Fluid buildup under the retina (choroidopathy). In this condition, fluid builds up under your retina because of a leaky blood vessel in a layer of blood vessels located under the retina. Choroidopathy (kor-oid-OP-uh-thee) can result in distorted vision or in some cases scarring that impairs vision.
  • Nerve damage (optic neuropathy). This is a condition in which blocked blood flow damages the optic nerve. It can kill nerve cells in your eyes, which may cause bleeding within your eye or vision loss.

Sexual dysfunction

Although the inability to have and maintain an erection (erectile dysfunction) becomes increasingly common in men as they reach age 50, it's even more likely to occur if they have high blood pressure, too. Over time, high blood pressure damages the lining of your blood vessels and causes your arteries to harden and narrow (atherosclerosis), limiting blood flow. This means less blood is able to flow to your penis. For some men, the decreased blood flow makes it difficult to achieve and maintain erections — often referred to as erectile dysfunction. The problem is fairly common, especially among men who are not treating their high blood pressure.

Women may have sexual dysfunction as a side effect of high blood pressure, as well. High blood pressure can reduce blood flow to your vagina. For some women, this leads to a decrease in sexual desire or arousal, vaginal dryness, or difficulty achieving orgasm. Improving arousal and lubrication can help. Like men, women can experience anxiety and relationship issues due to sexual dysfunction.

Other possible dangers of high blood pressure

High blood pressure can also affect other areas of the body, leading to such problems as:

  • Bone loss. High blood pressure can increase the amount of calcium that's in your urine. That excessive elimination of calcium may lead to loss of bone density (osteoporosis), which in turn can lead to broken bones. The risk is especially increased in older women.
  • Trouble sleeping. Obstructive sleep apnea — a condition in which your throat muscles relax causing you to snore loudly — occurs in more than half of those with high blood pressure. It's now thought that high blood pressure itself may help trigger sleep apnea. Also, sleep deprivation resulting from sleep apnea can raise your blood pressure.

High blood pressure emergencies

High blood pressure is typically a chronic condition that gradually causes damage over the years. In some cases, though, blood pressure rises so quickly and severely that it becomes a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment, often with hospitalization.

In these situations, high blood pressure can cause:

  • Problems with your brain, marked by memory loss, personality changes, trouble concentrating, irritability or progressive loss of consciousness (encephalopathy)
  • Stroke
  • Severe damage to your body's main artery (aortic dissection)
  • Seizures in pregnant women (preeclampsia or eclampsia)
  • Unstable chest pain (angina)
  • Heart attack
  • Sudden impaired pumping of the heart, leading to fluid backup in the lungs resulting in shortness of breath (pulmonary edema)
  • Sudden loss of kidney function (acute renal failure)

In most cases, these emergencies arise because high blood pressure hasn't been adequately controlled.

Feb. 18, 2014 See more In-depth