Donating blood can seem scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing how to prepare and what to expect once you’re there can help you stay relaxed and save lives!
It’s natural to have a lot of questions if you’ve never given blood before. What is donating blood like? What should I eat or drink to prepare? What makes me ineligible to donate? What if I feel dizzy or lightheaded while donating? Are there any restrictions on activities before or after donating? How long will it take?
All these questions swirling around can be overwhelming. Let’s break it down so you feel confident and comfortable when making your donation.
What is blood donation?
Blood donation helps keep our medical system running. When you give blood, you can rest well knowing that you’ve helped save the lives of others. Accidents, surgeries, medical conditions—all these mean millions of people need blood transfusions every year. That also means doctors need access to a lot of blood. There is no substitute for human blood, and all transfusions must come from human donors. That’s where you come in!
Types of donation
Not all blood drives or donations are the same. Blood can either be donated as a whole product or in its component parts, and different types of donations are used to treat different conditions.
- This is the most common type of blood donation.
- About 1 pint of blood is taken from the donor.
- The blood is separated into its components (red cells, plasma, and platelets) after donation.
Some donors choose to donate only one component at a time. These donors are hooked up to machines that collect and separate the blood’s components. The unused components are then returned to the donor’s bloodstream.
Platelet donation (plateletpheresis): Only cells that aid in clotting (platelets) are donated.
- Donated platelets are needed by people with leukemia, people receiving chemotherapy, and babies with severe infections.
Double red cell donation: Only red blood cells are donated.
- This process allows donors to contribute about two times more red blood cells in one sitting than they could via whole blood donation.
- Red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout the body and are needed for a variety of conditions, including severe blood loss and severe cases of anemia.
Plasma donation (plasmapheresis): Only the liquid portion of blood (plasma) is donated.
- Plasma helps blood clot. It also contains proteins and electrolytes, which keep the body functioning the way it should.
- Donated plasma is needed by people with liver conditions, blood-based bacterial infections, and burns.
To be eligible to donate whole blood, plasma, or platelets, you must be:
- In good general health at the time of donation.
- At least 17 years old (16 in some states). Legal minors are allowed to donate with parent permission in some states. Policies may vary between donor centers.
- At least 110 pounds for whole blood donation. There may be additional requirements for donating other components.
to pass the physical and health history assessment. Some disqualifiers that
might arise during these exams include having:
- A piercing or tattoo that is less than 12 months old.
- Hemoglobin levels under 12.5 g/L for women or 13.5 g/L for men.
- A current cold, flu, or fever.
How to prepare to donate blood
Take these steps before you head to your donation site. They will ensure that your donation goes off without a hitch.
- Call or go online to schedule a date and time to donate. You may be able to donate as a walk-in at the center of your choosing. Check ahead to ensure you will be able to give at your chosen time.
- Take steps to ensure you are well rested.
- Eat a
healthy meal, avoiding fatty foods like hamburgers, fries, and ice cream.
- In fact, start eating healthy foods weeks in advance to ensure you are getting plenty of iron. Try things like lean red meats, cooked beans, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, and spinach.
- Wear a shirt with sleeves that you can roll above your elbows.
- Drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids—like water or juice—in
the 24 hours before you donate.
- Also, drink an extra 16 ounces of water just before giving your donation.
- If you are a platelet donor, you cannot take aspirin during the two days prior to donating. You should take your other medications as prescribed.
What to expect
Before the procedure
- The entire process, from arrival to departure, usually takes 45 minutes to an hour. If you are giving platelets, it will take about two hours.
- Check in with the front desk.
- Once a staff member is ready for you, they will
have you enter a private area where they will:
- Verify your birthdate and photo ID.
- Take your vital measurements. This includes the
- Blood pressure
- Hemoglobin levels
- Give you a health questionnaire/assessment.
- Review educational information related to donation with you.
- Confirm that you are eligible to donate that day.
- Once your health assessments are complete—and you have passed all requirements—a blood donation center staff member will print out an identifying code for you. It will link to your basic health information and date of donation and will be scanned before you donate. The staff member will also direct you to a blood donation station.
During the procedure
- The staff member will confirm your identity by scanning your personal donor code. They will also confirm your preferred arm for donation, if applicable.
- The actual time spent giving is about 10 to 15 minutes.
- The blood donation staff member will explain what they are doing as they go.
- You will be asked to squeeze a stress ball (or something similar) every five seconds to keep the blood pumping. This helps speed up the donation process.
- Once the donation amount (usually around 1 pint) is collected, the staff member will remove the needle, ask you to put pressure on the area with gauze, then apply an adhesive bandage or pressure bandage to the area.
- Once you feel steady enough to stand up, you will be directed to sit nearby and wait for about 15 minutes. This ensures that you’re OK and have taken some time to drink fluids and have a snack.
After the procedure
- You are free to go after sitting for 15 minutes of observation. If you need more time, feel free to stay longer. Don’t leave until you feel confident that you are OK to do so.
- Remember to drink extra fluids throughout the next day or two.
- Avoid strenuous activity and heavy lifting for at least five hours after donation.
- If you feel lightheaded, lie down and put your feet up until the feeling passes.
- You can remove the pressure bandage after about
20 minutes. Keep the adhesive bandage on for at least five hours.
- If your arm bleeds when the bandages are removed, apply pressure and raise your arm until the bleeding stops.
- If your arm looks bruised, apply a cold pack to the area periodically during the first 24 hours.
- If your arm is sore, take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Avoid taking aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) for the first 48 hours after donating.
- Contact the blood donation center or your doctor if you experience any lingering issues or needed medical attention after donating. You should also reach out if you remember any important medical information that you forgot to disclose before donating.
- You may be able to view blood test results online (depending on the policies of the organization with which you made your donation).
- Within about two weeks of donating, you may receive an email letting you know that your blood donation is on its way to the hospital, where it could save the lives of up to three people in need of transfusion.
Fun facts about donating blood:
- Type O blood is the blood type hospitals need most frequently. This is because it is the “universal donor,” which means it can be used for transfusions to all other blood types.
- All donations are tested for HIV, hepatitis B and C, syphilis, and other infectious diseases before being released to patients. If you are positive for any of these, the donation organization will let you know.
- You are never too old to donate.
- More than 9 million people give blood in the United States every year.
- As many as 100 pints of blood can go to just one car accident victim. To put that in perspective, an average-sized woman has about 9 pints of blood in her body while an average-sized man has about 12.
- A healthy donor can give whole blood six times a year (every 56 days). Platelets can be donated up to 24 times a year.
You do not need to know your blood type before donating. The blood donation center or organization will type your blood for you and let you know the results. They may call you, email you, or direct you to an online account to receive this information.
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What to Do Before, During and After Your Donation. American Red Cross. Accessed December 18, 2019. https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/before-during-after.html
First Time Blood Donors: Someone Just Your Type Needs You. UPMC Health Beat. February 19, 105. Accessed December 18, 2019. https://share.upmc.com/2015/02/first-time-blood-donors-someone-just-type-needs/
Whole Blood Donation. American Red Cross. Accessed December 18, 2019. https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/types-of-blood-donations/whole-blood-donation.html
9 Things to Know Before You Donate Blood in 2019. American Red Cross. January 3, 2019. Accessed December 19, 2019. https://redcrosschat.org/2019/01/03/9-things-to-know-before-you-donate-blood-in-2019/
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