Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion.
By Natasha Persaud
Would you spend an hour to save someone's life? You can do just that by donating blood, the fluid that delivers fresh oxygen and vital nutrients to tissues throughout the body and performs many functions essential to survival. Blood is needed when someone is injured, for example, in a car accident or a natural disaster. It's also needed during surgery and to help people who are managing a medical condition such as sickle cell disease or cancer. Every two seconds someone needs donated blood.
When you donate blood, you can feel good that you're helping someone in need. One day, it might be your family member, friend, neighbor—or even you—who is need of blood. Support your community by giving blood on a regular basis.
Here, Richard Benjamin, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Red Cross, explains why donations are so important and what to expect when you donate:
Can I donate blood?
To give blood for transfusion to another person, you must be healthy and at least 17 years old (or, under some state laws, 16). You need to weigh at least 110 pounds and not have donated whole blood in the last 8 weeks (56 days).
Here, healthy means that you feel well and can perform normal activities. If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, healthy also means that you are being treated and the condition is under control.
You may be disqualified if you have an infectious disease or if you've traveled to or lived in an area that puts you at risk for one. For example, you are not eligible to donate if you have hepatitis or if you lived in or visited the United Kingdom for more than three months between 1980 and 1996, when it was possible to be exposed to mad cow disease (known in humans as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease).
Under certain circumstances you should wait to donate—for example, if you've recently traveled to countries where malaria is prevalent, if you have a fever, if you’re pregnant or if certain other medical reasons apply. To find out if you’re eligible, visit redcross.org for their complete eligibility guidelines or contact your local blood center.
Who is a universal donor? Who is a universal recipient?
There are four basic types of blood: A, B, AB and O. If you have an O blood type, your blood can be given to anyone, and you're considered a universal donor. A person with an AB blood type can receive blood from anyone and is considered a universal recipient.
The Rh factor, a marker of a specific protein on your red blood cells, is also important. You can be either Rh negative or Rh positive. When you give blood, your blood type and the Rh factor are recorded and matched to the recipient.
How do I donate blood?
You may give blood during a blood drive or make an appointment to donate at your local blood clinic. Visit givelife.org or call 800-GIVE-LIFE (800-448-3543) for locations. It costs you nothing to donate.
Upon arrival, you'll be asked for your name, address and contact information, and be given material to read and sign about blood donation and safety. A health-care worker at the clinic will then ask you questions about your medical history to check that you're eligible to donate.
You'll also be given a mini-physical: Your temperature, blood pressure and pulse will be taken and a drop of your blood will be obtained to determine your blood count. If your levels are normal and your overall health is good, you’ll be cleared for donation and asked to sign a consent form.
The actual process of giving your blood takes 20 minutes or less. You’ll sit in a well-cushioned, adjustable phlebotomy chair, while one pint of your blood is drawn. Later, your blood will be tested for 9 different infectious diseases using 12 different tests before it is shipped to a hospital or clinic for use. For more on what the FDA and the American Red Cross is doing to protect the nation's blood supply, visit 800-GIVE-LIFE and visit the FDA's website.
After you give blood, you’ll relax in a resting area for about 20 minutes and have a drink and snack, while the staff monitors you. Rarely, someone may faint, get dizzy or have an upset stomach after giving blood.
Besides whole blood, what else can I donate?
You may donate specific components of blood, including plasma, platelets or red blood cells. Plasma, the clear, protein-filled portion of blood, is commonly given to control bleeding; it helps burn victims and individuals with bleeding disorders. Platelets, known as the body’s band aids, also help to control bleeding. Cancer patients and organ transplant patients need transfusions of platelets in order to survive. Red blood cells, the most-needed blood component, are given to trauma and surgery patients to prevent anemia. In a double red cell donation, you contribute two units of red cells at one time. The guidelines for eligibility and frequency for this type of donation are slightly different than for donating a single unit of red cells.
Visit these pages from the American Red Cross to learn what's involved:
I'm having surgery. Can I donate my own blood?
In what is known as autologous donation, you can donate your blood from six weeks before surgery up until a point determined by your surgeon. Discuss this with your surgeon to see what might be best for you.
You typically make arrangements to give blood through the hospital where you will have surgery or through your local blood clinic. Unlike donating to a blood bank, there will be fees for the collection, testing and processing of your blood. Check with your insurance company to see if autologous donation is covered.
Can I donate blood to a family member or friend who is having surgery?
If you're a universal donor (blood type O) or if you have the same blood type as your relative or friend, you may be able be donate blood on his or her behalf.
Before the procedure, you need to make arrangements with the surgeon and the hospital where the surgery will be performed, and the patient has to agree to receive your blood. As with autologous donation, there are fees associated with directed donation; your insurance may or may not cover the costs.
Are there times of the year when blood donations are especially needed?
In winter and summer, blood centers may have shortages because fewer people donate around the holidays and during vacations, says Dr. Benjamin. Donated blood also has a short shelf-life—for platelets it’s only five days!—so having a steady stream of donations is critical. Among the charitable things you do during these months, consider giving blood.