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Surprising Info You Might Not Know About Blood Transfusions

If you’ve never needed a blood transfusion, you may not know much about them, beyond what you’ve seen in the movies or on TV. People realized centuries ago that you could replace one person’s blood with another’s. According to the American Red Cross, this life-saving treatment was first used in Britain in 1818 to treat a woman who was bleeding after giving birth. It’s still used for that purpose today, and since then, scientists have discovered ways it can treat other conditions, too. 

We connected with Daniel Enriquez, blood bank laboratory manager at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, AZ, and Gabrielle Wycoff, clinical laboratory administrative director at Banner Ocotillo Medical Center in Chandler, AZ, to learn more about this therapy.

What is a blood transfusion, exactly?

“A blood transfusion is the process of transferring components of blood from a donor to a recipient,” Wycoff said. You probably envision whole blood being transfused, but that’s generally the case only with major trauma. It’s more common to have a transfusion of blood components. That could be:

  • Platelets
  • Plasma
  • Red blood cells
  • Cryoprecipitate, or cryo, which helps blood to clot
  • Granulocytes, which are white blood cells

When people donate blood, it’s tested for infectious diseases and bacteria and separated into these components. (When people get paid for donating plasma, it’s used for pharmaceutical or manufacturing purposes, not direct medical care.)

Wycoff and Enriquez both encourage people to donate blood if they can. “We rely on volunteer donors to make a difference in the lives of others. One donation can save up to three lives,” Wycoff said.

Why might you need a blood transfusion?

Several situations could trigger the need for a blood transfusion. Some of the most common are:

  • Massive blood loss, which could stem from trauma, bleeding after childbirth or gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Cancer treatments that destroy red blood cells
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Bleeding when you take medications such as blood thinners

“Doctors give a lot of consideration to a person’s needs before deciding on a blood transfusion,” Enriquez said. “Blood and blood components are given only when no other treatment would be as effective.”

What are the risks of blood transfusions? 

Transfusion reactions are rare—they occur in up to just 1% of transfusions. “Reactions could be anything from allergic responses to lung injuries and can range from mild to life-threatening,” Wycoff said. Fatal reactions are extremely rare—they happen once in 600,000 to 2.3 million cases. You’re far more likely to die from a fall or a car accident.

Can you donate your blood for yourself or a loved one?

Donating your own blood to store for use in the future is rarely done. Sometimes, people bank their own blood a few days to a few weeks before surgery in case they need it during the procedure. But, in some cases, donating your own blood can make you anemic, which makes it more likely you will need a blood transfusion during surgery—possibly even a transfusion of someone else’s blood. And you will likely have to pay to use your own blood. 

If you have a very rare blood type, your doctor may recommend that you bank your blood in case you need a transfusion. But in that case, you’ll usually have time for your body to recover before you need to use this blood.

It’s possible, but uncommon, to donate specifically for another person, such as a child.

What does your blood type have to do with transfusions?

There are four blood types: A, B, AB and O. You need to get a transfusion of the correct type of blood, or else the antibodies in your own blood will attack it. “You can look at a blood transfusion as a transplant—it’s foreign to the patient,” Enriquez said. The breakdown of blood types varies by ethnicity.

Almost anyone can receive type O blood. That’s why people who donate type O blood are called universal donors. People with type AB can receive any type of blood, so they are called universal recipients. 

Your blood also needs to be screened for antibodies before you can have a transfusion. If you test positive for an antibody, you want to make sure the blood you’re transfusing won’t trigger a reaction. 

“The more times someone has blood transfusions and is exposed to blood from donors, the higher the chance that they will make more antibodies to blood that is foreign,” Wycoff said. “Sometimes it can take days to determine what antibodies a patient has, and it can require a nationwide search to get blood from rare blood donors when people have complex or rare antibodies. Some of these rare units are frozen and stored in specialized blood banks.”

The bottom line

Blood transfusions are a life-saving treatment for a range of health conditions. If you need a transfusion, your medical team carefully evaluates your own blood to help ensure the blood you receive is a good match. If you have questions about health conditions that might require a blood transfusion, reach out to a health care provider at Banner Health. 

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