Celida Rangel, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician who practices at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: I’ve been told my 12-year-old son has high blood pressure? I didn’t know children could have this condition. What could have caused it?
Answer: It’s a little-known fact that children, too, can suffer from hypertension, or high blood pressure. We should begin by defining blood pressure; it is the pressure your blood exerts against your blood vessel walls when your heart pumps. Blood pressure changes from minute to minute and is affected by activity, temperature, diet, emotional state and medications. The top number is the systolic pressure and is the pressure at the peak of each heartbeat. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure and is the pressure when the heart is resting between heart beats.
Most physicians routinely check a child's blood pressure after the age of three. Unlike adults, a child's blood pressure varies by age, sex and height. The blood pressure is then compared to normal values of other children of the same age, sex and height. This way, a child will not be misclassified if he/she is short or tall.
It’s estimated that 5 to 10 percent of American school-aged children have hypertension. The numbers could be higher because most children with hypertension have no symptoms. When children do experience symptoms, they most commonly complain of headaches, nausea, heart palpitations or blurry vision. Having your child’s blood pressure checked regularly by your family’s pediatrician or family practitioner is the most important way to recognize and diagnose hypertension.
As for the cause, the list is extensive. The most serious causes include kidney problems, hormone disorders or abnormalities of the blood vessels. However, in children, the most common causes are obesity, inactivity, and a diet high in fat and sodium.
You are wise to be concerned about this condition. Without treatment, high blood pressure can eventually damage arteries, kidneys, eyes and the heart, and lead to kidney failure requiring dialysis, stroke, heart attacks and blindness.
Your physician can recommend the best treatment options for your son. But, as a general rule, children with hypertension are encouraged to maintain an age-and height-appropriate weight, exercise regularly, reduce stress, lower salt in their diets, and avoid products with caffeine. Children with significantly elevated blood pressures may require prescription blood pressure medications. With proper treatment, children with hypertension can continue to lead normal, healthy, active lives.