Blood Donation: Who Can Do It, How Often, and Everything Else You Need to Know

Donating blood is a quick, easy way to play a part in saving someone's life. After all, donated blood is key to being able to properly care for patients. It's important because as long as we drive on the roads together, there are going to be automobile accidents that require emergency surgery.

But that proper patient care is at risk now that the national blood supply is so low. In January 2021, the American Red Cross announced its first-ever national blood crisis, with the organization experiencing its worst blood shortage in over a decade.

"The Red Cross has experienced a 10% decline in the number of people donating blood since the beginning of the pandemic and continues to confront relentless issues due to the pandemic," Red Cross spokesperson Janelle Eli tells Health. For instance, ongoing blood drives have had to be canceled due to staffing limitations or to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

Pandemic or not, national blood crisis or not, blood donation is important at all times. So regardless of whether it was the recent call for blood donation that got you thinking about giving, here are the blood donation basics that you should know.

Why It Is Important

Any one of us might need a blood donation during our lifetime. "Blood donations are needed for accident victims; for planned and unplanned surgeries; and for those receiving ongoing treatment for leukemia, cancer, or sickle cell disease," Tom Schwaninger, board member of the American Red Cross Los Angeles and senior executive adviser (digital) at L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly operated health plan in the country, tells Health.

Certain types of surgical cases, like trauma surgery, joint replacement surgery, or heart surgery, may require more blood product support than others. "Patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer treatment or in preparation for bone marrow transplant temporarily rely on blood products, as well," Minh-Ha Tran, DO, clinical professor of pathology at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine and medical director at UCI Health Transfusion Medicine Service, tells Health.

"An ongoing flow of blood donations is crucial because blood is, in essence, a 'perishable' product—it can't be manufactured or stockpiled for a long period of time," says Dr. Tran. "So while blood products have a limited shelf life, the demand for blood is constant."

Hospital trauma centers can't operate without an adequate supply of blood on hand, Schwaniger explains. This means doctors are sometimes forced to make difficult decisions about who receives blood transfusions and who will need to wait until more blood is available.

"An ongoing flow of blood donations is crucial because blood is, in essence, a 'perishable' product—it can't be manufactured or stockpiled for a long period of time," says Dr. Tran. "So while blood products have a limited shelf life, the demand for blood is constant."

Turns out only about 3% of age-eligible people donate blood yearly, according to Eli. And again, blood only becomes available as people donate. So how much blood is available at any given time is dependent on how many people donate. "Ideally there is a least a three-day supply of all blood types and products available throughout the national blood system," explains Schwaniger. But right now, some places have less than a half-day supply, requiring blood to be transported to and between hospitals on an emergency basis—delaying important treatment to patients.

There can also be unexpected surges in utilization. "This happens during resuscitation and surgery of, for example, a trauma patient with catastrophic injury," Dr. Tran explains. "These unanticipated surges can rapidly deplete inventory for a particular blood group. We then turn to our donor center and to regional blood centers to back-fill, but this again relies on donors doing their part."

In recent weeks, the Red Cross—which supplies 40% of the nation's blood—has had to limit blood distributions to hospitals. "On certain days, some hospitals may not receive as much as one-quarter of the blood products requested," the Red Cross says in its press release.

Who Can Donate?

To see if you're eligible to give, you'll want to first check the general health requirements for blood donation, including that you meet a certain age, weight, and sometimes height and that you are in good health and feeling well (ie, you don't have a fever, a problem with breathing through your mouth, or a productive cough and can still carry out your usual daily activities). Some of the specific requirements vary depending on what type of donation you are giving (more on that later).

Some chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, don't automatically rule you out as a blood donor—you may still be eligible if your condition is under control with treatment. But certain health conditions, including HIV, hepatitis, and active tuberculosis, do rule out your ability to donate blood. If you've had cancer, the type of cancer you had, as well as your treatment history, might also make you ineligible to donate. People who are pregnant have to wait until six weeks after they've given birth to donate.

The Red Cross lists all of the possible reasons—from medications to travel outside the US—why someone might have to delay or entirely skip out on their donation on their website.

And then there's the decades-long controversy: Per Food and Drug Administration guidance, a man who has had sex with another man within the past three months is also not allowed to donate. Once that three-month abstinence period has passed, however, they can donate their blood.

Knowing how hurtful the policy has been to the LGBTQ+ community, the Red Cross says it is helping to evaluate "alternative donor eligibility criteria." There is no such rule about blood donation deferral for women based on their sexual partners.

How Can You Donate Blood?

If you are able and want to donate blood, you have a few options. Donating whole blood (simply, the blood that flows through your veins) is the most versatile option in terms of what it can be used for, per the Red Cross. That's because a patient who needs a blood transfusion can receive whole blood in its original form, or the blood can also be split up into the different components it contains (ie, red cells, white cells, and platelets suspended in plasma) so that several people can benefit from it. You can donate whole blood every 56 days up to a maximum of six times a year, as long as you're at least 17 years old (in some states, you can be 16 with parent permission) and weigh at least 110 pounds.

Another option is a "Power Red" donation, which lets you donate two units of red cells during one appointment. According to the Red Cross, red blood cells are the most frequently used component of blood, required by almost every type of patient waiting for a transfusion. This type of donation is only for those with type O, A negative, or B negative blood. If you have that type of blood, you can make a "Power Red" donation every 112 days, up to a maximum of three times a year, provided you meet the age, height, and weight requirements, which are all detailed on the Red Cross website.

If you'd like to donate more frequently, you can donate platelets every seven days, up to a maximum of 24 times a year. Platelets are tiny cells in your blood that form clots and stop bleeding and can help those with cancer, chronic diseases, and traumatic injuries, per the Red Cross. Again, there are age and weight requirements (at least 17 years old in most states, and 110 pounds).

While all types of blood are needed, some people can play an even more critical role in helping people through blood donation, says Schwaniger. That includes Black blood donors, whose donations are most compatible for those who require treatments for sickle cell disease, a red blood cell disorder that causes a lack of healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.

Folks can make an appointment to donate blood by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood, or calling 1-800-REDCROSS. However, as the nation faces the latest challenges of this pandemic environment, there may not be an immediate appointment available, or you may be asked to reschedule an appointment. "The Red Cross still needs donors, so we are grateful for your patience," Eli says. You can also call the Red Cross to discuss eligibility if you're not sure whether you qualify as a donor.

Besides making an appointment with the Red Cross, you can attend a Red Cross blood drive. You also may be able to donate blood and platelets at your local clinic, hospital, or independent non-profit community blood center.

Preparing for Your Appointment

The night before donating, have a meal with iron-rich foods—red meat, fish, poultry, beans, spinach, iron-fortified cereals, or raisins—and get a good night's sleep. The morning of your appointment, eat a healthy breakfast and drink extra liquids. "Drink an extra 16 ounces of water (or another non-alcoholic drink) before your appointment," says Eli.

On a practical note, it's a good idea to wear a shirt with sleeves that you can roll up above your elbows when donating. Also, make sure to bring your blood donor card, driver's license, or other acceptable forms of ID; that's required at check-in. Oh, and if you're donating whole blood or platelets, don't worry if you don't know your blood type beforehand. All blood types are needed, and you'll actually find out what your blood type is after the donation.

Most donors feel absolutely fine after donating blood or platelets, but there is a slight chance of experiencing an upset stomach; feeling faint or dizzy; or developing bruising, redness, or pain where the needle was inserted. Just get plenty of rest, and remind yourself what a good thing you've done—your blood might help save a life.

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