The Lowdown on Blood Transfusions

We all hope to have healthy, illness– and accident-free lives, and often don’t spend too much time thinking about what could go wrong. However, if you’ve ever had a family member or friend who has become very ill or been in a bad accident, you may have heard that they had to have a blood transfusion to save their life or get better.

Transfusions occur more often than you may realize and for many different reasons. If you’ve been trying to decide whether to give blood this year, read on for the lowdown on blood transfusions.

The Lowdown on Blood Transfusions

What is a Blood Transfusion?

A blood transfusion is a procedure that involves donated blood or components of the blood being put into your body by way of an intravenous line (IV). Usually, blood transfusions utilize someone else’s blood, but there are times when you may have your own blood (previously collected and stored) given back to you. In most cases, though, the blood comes from another donor since there’s an urgent need.

When Do People Require a Blood Transfusion?

A transfusion replaces blood and blood components when you’re running low on them. It’s often done as a life-saving step when people have lost a lot of blood through surgery, accidents, injuries, or due to anemia, sickle cell disease, hemophilia, or other blood-related health issues. A transfusion may be necessary when illness prevents someone’s body from making blood or blood components effectively. Plus, when people have certain cancers, they may need to get a blood transfusion.

Types of Blood and Blood Components

Blood types are responsible for interactions between cells and the immune system. When receiving a transfusion, it’s critical for the blood type of the recipient and the donor to match so the person getting the transfusion doesn’t have an immune system that destroys the donor’s cells.

There are four blood groups: A, B, AB, or O. Plus, we either have blood labeled Rh-positive or Rh-negative. For example, you might have an O-positive blood type or B-negative blood. Keep in mind, though, that there are some “universal donors” and “universal recipients.” Type O negative blood is safe for most people to use, making anyone with this blood type a universal donor. Also, some people can receive any blood type donation. Those with AB blood are called universal recipients because it doesn’t matter what blood transfusion they receive.

Sometimes transfusions happen on a whole blood basis, where you receive all the parts of someone’s blood. However, most of the time, a transfusion only provides the part(s) of the blood you require at the time. Most commonly, this is the red blood cells, which carry oxygen and help your body remove waste products.

You might get platelets put into you, as these help your blood clot properly. White cells help the body fight infections, so they are essential, too, as is plasma, which is the liquid part of the blood that carries proteins, nutrients, hormones, and the like to the areas of the body that need it.

The Process of Transfusion

You may be awake for a blood transfusion if you have a pre-booked appointment for one in a doctor’s office or hospital. Or, you might be asleep (medicated, in a coma, passed out, etc.) if you need an emergency transfusion during surgery or in a hospital emergency room.

The medical practitioner will insert an IV line into one of your blood vessels to feed the healthy blood into you. First, though, they verify your name and birthdate and match it to the blood they plan to transfuse, so you get given the correct type. The procedure typically takes between one to four hours, depending on the amount of blood you require and which part(s) you’re getting.

Potential Side Effects

Blood transfusions are safe, and most people have them without any complications. Some side effects can occur, but they’re usually mild and short-lived. For instance, you could get a fever or chills, become itchy, get hives, or notice shortness of breath. Most of these reactions are allergy-based. Also, blood banks screen donors and test blood to reduce the risk of infections arising from transfusions, so bloodborne diseases are extremely rare.

Some uncommon but severe side effects from a transfusion include immune hemolytic reactions that happen immediately or may be delayed. These occur when the donor blood type isn’t a good match. This reaction can harm your kidneys. There’s also a condition where transfused white blood cells can attack the bone marrow, but this usually only happens in people with severely weakened immune systems, such as those with leukemia.

Health workers will observe you carefully during a blood transfusion, especially the first 15 minutes when allergic reactions typically arise. However, if you’re awake and notice yourself feeling unwell during a transfusion, alert the medical practitioner right away.

A blood transfusion may sound like a bit of a scary or stressful thing, but as you can see, it’s a straightforward and life-saving process that happens every day around the country.