Blood Transfusions

Blood Transfusions

Why is a blood transfusion important?

A blood transfusion is one of the most common medical procedures for people of all ages. It involves adding blood previously donated from one person to another. You may need a transfusion for surgery, to replace blood lost from a serious injury (such as a car accident), or to help manage certain medical conditions. A blood transfusion involves the use of a small needle and intravenous (IV) line. The needle is inserted into your blood vessel in order to transfer the blood you need. The procedure usually takes 1 to 4 hours. Before your transfusion, your health care team will confirm your blood type and the donated blood type to make sure they match.

Donated blood is typically collected and stored in a blood bank. Blood donations also can take place in a hospital or clinic lab. It is possible to donate your blood for your own use at a later time. This is called an autologous blood transfusion. It can be used for an upcoming surgery. (It takes four to six weeks to store enough of your blood for most surgeries. Your doctor can recommend how many units you’ll need. He or she will also estimate the time to rebuild your red blood cell count between each donation.) Your blood can’t be used in an unplanned situation, such as an emergency.

Donating blood to a friend or family member is called a directed blood donation. A directed blood transfusion also must be planned four to six weeks in advance of that person’s need.

Path to better health

Most blood transfusions go smoothly and are successful. In most cases, strict blood donation screening, eligibility, and blood-type rules lead to a healthy outcome. A health care provider will check your temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate after the transfusion.

Blood tests can check your body’s reaction to the transfusion. The tests look at the health of your kidneys, liver, thyroid, heart, and overall health. The tests also check that the blood is clotting properly and how well any medicine you are taking is working.

Possible mild complications:

  • Soreness where the needle was inserted.

Possible allergic reactions:

  • Low blood pressure, feeling nauseous, a rapid pulse, breathing difficulties, anxiety, and chest or back pain.

Rare, more serious complications:

  • Fever the day of the transfusion.
  • Liver damage from getting too much iron.
  • Unexplained lung damage within the first six hours of the procedure (in patients who were seriously ill before the transfusion).
  • A serious or delayed reaction if you are given the wrong blood type or if your body attacks the red blood cells in the donated blood.
  • Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), in which white blood cells from the donated blood attack the tissue in your body.

Things to consider about a blood transfusion

Blood transfusions are considered safe because of the strict screening, eligibility, and blood type rules established for blood donations.

Many people worry about receiving blood that carries infections or viruses, such as hepatitis B and C, HIV, or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a fatal brain disorder, which is the human version of Mad Cow Disease). Although these infections and viruses can be spread through a blood transfusion, the risk of getting them is extremely low.

Criteria varies by state, but generally, blood donors must be at least 17 years old, weigh a minimum of 110 pounds, and be in good health on the day of the donation. Donors also must answer a confidential health questionnaire that screens for possible disease, lifestyle, health, medical history, and travel risks. For example, if a person recently traveled to an area with a Zika epidemic, they would not be allowed to donate blood until a certain amount of time has passed. This same questionnaire would be used to evaluate a person’s lifestyle, including whether the donor was at a higher risk for having HIV/AIDS. Blood donors may not be able to donate based on their answers to the questions. Multiple lab tests will check for infectious diseases and viruses.

Questions for your doctor

  • How safe is the blood supply in U.S. blood banks?
  • If I’m traveling outside of the United States, is there anything I need to know about blood donations or the blood supply?
  • If I choose an autologous or directed blood donation, how many months in advance do I need to plan?

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blood Safety

Red Cross, Blood Donations