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 vital to properly caring for patients. It's important because as long as we drive on the roads together, there will 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 told Health. For instance, ongoing blood drives were canceled due to staffing limitations or to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

Pandemic or not, national blood crisis or not, blood donation is always important. Here are the blood donation basics you should know.

Why Is Blood Donation 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, told 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, told Health.

An Ongoing Need

"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," said 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, Schwaninger explained. 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.

It 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 depends on how many people donate.

A Limited Supply

"Ideally, there is a least a three-day supply of all blood types and products available throughout the national blood system," explained Schwaninger. However, 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 explained. "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."

Since the announcement, 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 stated in its press release.

Who Can Donate Blood?

To see if you're eligible to give, you'll want first to check the general health requirements for blood donation. Some of the specific requirements vary depending on what type of donation you are giving, but here are some general guidelines:

  • You need to be in good health and feeling well (i.e., 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).
  • You need to be at least 17 years old (in some states, you can be 16 with parental permission).
  • You must weigh at least 110 pounds.
  • 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.
  • 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 and your treatment history might also make you ineligible to donate.
  • If you are pregnant, you'll have to wait six weeks after giving birth to donate.

The Red Cross lists all 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: 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, they can donate their blood.

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

Different Types of Blood Donation

If you are able and want to donate blood, you have a few options.

Whole Blood

Donating whole blood (the blood that flows through your veins) is the most versatile option in terms of what it can be used for.

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 (i.e., red cells, white cells, and platelets suspended in plasma), so several people can benefit from it. Here are some whole blood donation basics:

  • You can donate every 56 days up to a maximum of six times a year.
  • It takes about one hour.

Power Red

Another option is a "Power Red" donation, which lets you donate two units of red cells during one appointment.

Red blood cells are the most frequently used blood component, required by almost every type of patient waiting for a transfusion.

  • This donation type is only for those with type O, A negative, or B negative blood.
  • You can donate every 112 days, up to a maximum of three times a year.
  • It takes about one and a half hours.


If you'd like to donate more frequently, platelet donation might be one to think about.

Platelets are tiny cells in your blood that form clots and stop bleeding and can help those with cancer, chronic diseases, and traumatic injuries.

  • You can donate every seven days, up to a maximum of 24 times a year.
  • It takes about 2.5 to three hours.

While all types of blood are needed, you can play an even more critical role in helping people through blood donation, said Schwaninger. This includes Black blood donors, whose donations are most compatible with 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.

How To Schedule a Blood Donation

You can make an appointment to donate blood by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting, or calling 1-800-REDCROSS.

However, an immediate appointment may not be available, or you may be asked to reschedule an appointment. "The Red Cross still needs donors, so we are grateful for your patience," Eli said. You can also call the Red Cross to discuss eligibility if you're unsure 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, eat iron-rich foods—red meat, fish, poultry, beans, spinach, iron-fortified cereals, or raisins—and get a good night's sleep.

On 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," said 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, bring your blood donor card, driver's license, or other acceptable forms of ID; it's required at check-in.

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 find out your blood type after the donation.

Most donors feel 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. Get plenty of rest, and remind yourself what a good thing you've done—your blood might help save a life.

A Quick Review

There is always a need for donated blood—for accident victims, surgeries, and cancer patients, just to name a few instances. There are different types of donations; many people are eligible to donate, but very few do. Even if you think you may be unable to donate, you just might be, so check with the American Red Cross. Go prepared for your donation, and help keep our blood supply going.

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  1. American Red Cross. Press Release.

  2. Montroy J, Lavallée LT, Zarychanski R, et al. The top 20 surgical procedures associated with the highest risk for blood transfusionBr J Surg. 2020;107(13):e642-e643. doi:10.1002/bjs.12005

  3. American Red Cross. Importance of the Blood Supply.

  4. American Red Cross. Frequently Asked Questions.

  5. US Food and Drug Administration. Revised Recommendations for Reducing the Risk of Human Immunodeficiency Virus Transmission by Blood and Blood Products.

  6. American Red Cross. LGBTQ+ Donors.

  7. American Red Cross. Whole Blood Donation.

  8. American Red Cross. Requirements by Donation Type.

  9. American Red Cross. Power Red Donation.

  10. American Red Cross. Platelet Donation.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Is Sickle Cell Disease?

  12. American Red Cross. What to Do Before, During and After Your Donation.

  13. American Red Cross. Acceptable Forms of ID for Blood Donors.

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