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Why does a doctor check your blood pressure when you take the pill?

Taking the combined contraceptive pill can increase your risk of getting high blood pressure (hypertension), depending on the pill that you are using. Your doctor needs to check your blood pressure to make sure that it is staying at a safe level.

You are more likely to develop high blood pressure while on the pill if you are overweight, you have a family history of hypertension, or if you had high blood pressure during pregnancy. If you smoke and take the pill you could also be at risk of high blood pressure.

Hypertension is one of the main risk factors for heart attack and stroke, so your doctor will monitor your blood pressure and make sure that it remains at a safe level while you are taking the pill.

If you already have high blood pressure, speak to your doctor before taking the pill. Another form of contraception such as a progestogen-only pill or the contraceptive injection may be more suitable for you.

How often should you check your blood pressure when you take the pill?

If you’re less than 40 years old and are otherwise fit and healthy, your blood pressure only needs to be checked every five years. However if you're taking the combined contraceptive pill and have any other risk factors that could lead you to develop high blood pressure then you'll need to get your blood pressure checked more regularly.

How can you get your blood pressure checked in Ireland?

You can get your blood pressure checked at your GP surgery by appointment. If you hold a medical card you won’t be charged. You can also get your blood pressure checked at selected pharmacies. You don’t normally need an appointment at a pharmacy, but you may be charged for the service.

Even if you have a high blood pressure reading at the doctor or pharmacy, you might have a normal reading at home, where you are more relaxed. The doctor or pharmacist may recommend that your blood pressure is monitored for 24 hours to find out if the reading is consistently high.

Your doctor or pharmacist will fit you with a blood pressure monitoring device which includes placing a cuff around your arm that measures your blood pressure readings over a 24 hour period. 24 hour blood pressure monitoring is not covered by medical cards, so you will be charged for this service. Pharmacies will also charge you a fee for 24 hour monitoring of you blood pressure.

What do the two numbers in a blood pressure reading mean and why are they important?

Blood pressure readings have two numbers, one on top of the other, for example, 120/80mmHg. The top number is your systolic blood pressure and the bottom one is your diastolic blood pressure.

  • Systolic means the highest pressure when your heart beats as it pushes blood around your body.

  • Diastolic means the lowest pressure as your heart relaxes between beats.

Even if only one of the numbers is higher or lower than it should be, this counts as either high blood pressure or low blood pressure.

If your systolic number is consistently 140 or higher and/or your diastolic number is 90 or more then you may have high blood pressure.

If your systolic number is consistently 90 or less and/or your diastolic number is 60 or less then you could have low blood pressure.

Many things can affect your blood pressure readings throughout the day, so a number of blood pressure readings need to be taken over a period of time to check if it is consistently high or low.

What does ‘high blood pressure’ mean?

High blood pressure (a reading of 140/90mmHg or higher for a number of weeks) means that a strain is being put on your arteries and major organs - the brain, heart and kidneys.

This extra strain on these areas of your body can increase your risk of future health problems including heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and some forms of dementia.

High blood pressure usually has no signs or symptoms, therefore the only way to find out if you have it is to get yours checked.

What can I do if I have ‘high blood pressure’?

If you have consistently high blood pressure readings, there are things that you can do to bring your blood pressure down and reduce your risk of developing further health problems.

There are a number of lifestyle changes that you can make to help to lower your blood pressure:

  • Reduce your salt intake - eat more wholefoods and natural foods, avoid processed foods and adding extra salt to anything you cook from scratch. 

  • Eat more fruit and vegetables - aim for at least five portions of fruit and veg a day.

  • Reduce your alcohol intake - drink in moderation, no more than 2-3 units per day (one unit is a small glass of wine or half a pint of cider or beer). Drinking more than this amount over time can slowly raise your blood pressure.

  • Give up smoking - smoking has the effect of immediately raising your blood pressure and also causes your artery walls to narrow over time, increasing your blood pressure.

  • Lose weight - if you're overweight, eating a healthy balanced diet and taking regular moderate exercise helps you to lose weight and reduces your risk of high blood pressure.

If you're thinking of going on the pill and already have high blood pressure, speak to your doctor.

What does ‘low blood pressure’ mean?

Some people have naturally low blood pressure (hypotension). Low blood pressure means that you have a lower risk of heart disease or stroke, but if it’s too low it can cause health problems.

A low blood pressure reading is a level of 90/60mmHg or lower. If either of the numbers is lower than it should be, this could mean low blood pressure.

What can I do if I have ‘low blood pressure’?

Having low blood pressure is not usually a reason to worry. However, if your blood pressure drops too low it can make you feel dizzy and faint.

Speak to your doctor if you think that you might have low blood pressure. Most people with low blood pressure don’t need treatment, but if your doctor thinks that you would benefit from treatment, they will try to identify the cause of your low blood pressure and treat that first.

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