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What is low blood pressure, and how does it affect your health?

Simon Cowell's recent health scare is putting the spotlight on the flip side of high blood pressure.
/ Source: TODAY

Simon Cowell’s recent health scare is putting the spotlight on the flip side of high blood pressure.

While you may know hypertension is bad for your health — straining your heart and raising your risk of heart attack and stroke — low blood pressure, or hypotension, can come with its own dangerous consequences.

Cowell, the 58-year-old “America’s Got Talent” judge, suffered a concussion last week after he passed out and fell down a flight of stairs at his London home.

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“[Doctors] think I fainted because I had low blood pressure and so I have got to really take good care of myself to sort that out,” he told The Sun, a British newspaper.

“Sometimes we get a reminder that we’re not invincible and this was certainly mine. It was a huge shock.”

What’s the risk?

When you get your blood pressure checked, doctors like to see a lower reading, within certain limits — generally between 90/60 mmHg and 120/80 mmHg. But you could fall below the lower limit and still be healthy and feel fine.

With low blood pressure, the numbers are mostly irrelevant unless you have symptoms, said Dr. Sharonne Hayes, director of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Your heart loves a low blood pressure; your brain sometimes not so much,” Hayes told TODAY. “The challenge is that you need a certain amount of pressure to get the blood up to your brain.”

“The condition itself isn’t going to kill you, but if you’re on a subway platform and you get lightheaded and fall, you can hit your head or you can get hit by a train,” added Dr. Jennifer Haythe, co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Neither doctor is treating Cowell, but commented about the condition in general.

What are the symptoms of low blood pressure?

If your brain is not getting enough blood, you’ll feel woozy and lightheaded. You may sweat, have clammy skin or feel nauseous. You can get tunnel vision like you’re about to pass out or you may feel like everything is going black in front of your eyes.

Why do people experience low blood pressure?

There are several possible reasons.

Low blood pressure can be a temporary event for anyone. Often, people who stand for a long time — on a subway or in a church choir, for example — may experience hypotension and syncope, the clinical term for fainting.

Blood pressure can also drop for a few seconds when you stand up. If you work out hard and get dehydrated, your normal blood pressure can dip low enough to cause you to pass out, Hayes said.

Some people just naturally have low blood pressure. For others, it may be due to the medicines they’re taking.

More serious causes of low blood pressure include heart failure, severe infection and conditions where your autonomic nervous system is not working properly.

Who is a typical patient?

Low blood pressure is more common in young, thin, tall women, Haythe said. Hypotension is also common during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

How is it managed?

If it’s a temporary event, the best way to treat low blood pressure is to lie down, Hayes said.

If you have chronically low blood pressure and feel lousy with it, her first advice is to exercise regularly because that gets the muscles around the blood vessels to be more responsive. You should also take basic precautions, like standing up slowly when you get out of bed to avoid a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Patients also have to make sure they're hydrated and even over-hydrated. Consuming lots of salt is actually good for low blood pressure because sodium in the diet helps your body hold on to the fluid that you take in. Hayes simply advises patients to drink tomato juice every morning.

Low blood pressure can also be managed with medications.

Bottom line:

High blood pressure is a much more significant long-term risk to your health, both doctors said. With low blood pressure, they’re only concerned if people have symptoms.

“Low blood pressure is not usually a heart risk; it’s more of an injury risk,” Hayes said.

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