Blood Donation and Transfusion

Every year, nearly five million Americans need blood transfusions. An estimated 43,000 pints (or units) of donated blood are used each day in the United States, and one in seven people entering the hospital needs blood. Women are critical to the country’s blood supply, since their role as caregivers sends a message that donating blood is the right thing to do. However, they are also more likely than men to be temporarily restricted from donating because of low hematocrit, or red blood cell levels if they are still menstruating.

Blood Shortages: Why Donating Blood Is Important
Unfortunately, the country’s blood supply on occasion runs on perilously thin margins. Blood shortages occur periodically when supply doesn’t keep up with demand. But if only one more percent of the United States population would give blood, these shortages would disappear for the foreseeable future.

Shortages occur for numerous reasons, including generational differences and behaviors associated with giving blood and an increased need for blood transfusions. Blood banks work hard to make it as easy and convenient as possible to donate blood. Still, there are numerous restrictions on who can donate blood, with an estimated 62 percent of the American population unable to donate.

How Do You Donate Blood?
Donating blood is relatively simple and entirely safe, however, taking just an hour and requiring little preparation. There is little risk of adverse reaction when donating blood, and you can donate whole blood every 56 days; blood platelets every three days, up to 24 times a year. However, a few people may feel dizzy or faint during the process. In general, this can be prevented by eating a good meal and drinking a lot of fluids (not caffeine) before the donation.

Is the Blood Supply Safe?
The blood supply today is extremely safe, with the risk of catching a blood-borne disease via a transfusion miniscule. Research is underway to make the blood supply even safer via blood sterilization. Transfusions carry other risks, including the risk of receiving the wrong blood type and of contracting a rare lung condition that can be deadly.

The Blood Transfusion Process
During a transfusion, any one of several blood components may be transfused, including blood platelets, which help blood clot; red cells, which carry oxygen; and plasma, the watery fluid that transports cells and nutrients and replaces blood volume.

What Are the Different Blood Types?
There are four types of blood—O, A, B, and AB—and each type can be positive or negative, referred to as the Rh factor. In an emergency, anyone can receive type O negative blood, regardless of his or her own blood type. Researchers have also developed medicines that may help mimic the actions of some blood parts. Throughout your life, you will undergo numerous blood tests. The most common blood test, called a complete blood count, or CBC, measures the number of white and red blood cells, your hemoglobin and hematocrit values and your platelet count. Another slew of blood tests, referred to as a comprehensive metabolic panel, provide important information about your kidneys, liver, blood sugar and blood proteins.

Facts to Know

Every year, nearly five million Americans need blood transfusions, while an estimated 43,000 pints of donated blood are used each day.
This country has a severe blood shortage.
It takes just an hour from start to finish to donate blood.
As caregivers, it is particularly important that women donate blood because it sends a signal to other family and friends that donating blood is safe, painless and appropriate.
Donating blood is perfectly safe, with no risk of contracting any blood-borne diseases.
You can donate blood every 56 days.
Women who still menstruate may have low iron levels that temporarily prevent them from donating blood, but they can return and donate once their iron levels return to normal.
The U.S. blood supply is very safe, with little chance of diseases like HIV being transmitted via blood transfusion.
About 85 percent of Americans have Rh-positive blood.
In an emergency, anyone can receive type O negative red blood cells. People with this type of blood are known as “universal donors.”

Key Q&A

Why should I donate blood?Every year, nearly five million Americans need blood transfusions, and an estimated 43,000 of donated blood are used each day in the United States. Yet the country’s blood supply runs on perilously thin margins.
Why isn’t there enough blood?Several reasons: The World War II generation, which has always been the greatest donor of blood products, is getting older and fewer. Subsequent generations simply haven’t taken up the call to donate. Today, just five to 10 percent of Americans donate blood, even though 38 percent are eligible.
Who can donate blood?The criteria are comprehensive, covering everything from the type of medication you’re taking to any illnesses past or current. Briefly, you must be 17 or older to donate blood and weigh at least 110 pounds. You cannot donate if you have ever tested positive for HIV or Hepatitis B or C or have a clotting disorder or have taken human pituitary-derived growth hormone.
Are there certain medications that disqualify me from donating blood?Most medications do not interfere with your ability to donate blood, although some require that you be finished taking the medicine for several days before donating. You cannot donate blood if you have ever taken etretinate (Tegison) or human pituitary-derived growth hormone.
If I have traveled in the United Kingdom, can I still donate blood?Not if you’ve spent three months or more cumulatively in the UK between 1980 and 1996.
Will I have a reaction after donating blood?A few people may experience some nausea and dizziness and may notice a bruise, redness or swelling at the needle insertion site.
May I still donate when I’m menstruating?Absolutely, as long as you feel OK and don’t have low iron levels.
Do I need to make any special preparations prior to donating?Yes. You should eat and drink heartily the day of your donation, avoid caffeine and alcohol and refrain from exercising. You should wear comfortable clothing and bring a picture ID to the donation site.
What should I do if I become sick or discover something that may make the transfusion harmful to a patient after I’ve already donated blood?Immediately call the blood center where you donated blood so they can take the necessary precautions.
Do I have to know my blood type before donating?No. The blood center will test your blood to determine its type and will let you know your blood type a few days after your donation.

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