The United States are experiencing a National Blood Shortage, meaning that the American Red Cross is in desperate need of donations. In addition to yielding the personal satisfaction that comes with giving to others, making a blood donation is safe, a minimal time effort, and relatively easy on your body if you prepare and recover appropriately.
Who should speak with their doctor before donating blood?
There are some medical conditions that would either prohibit someone from being able to donate blood or warrant conversation with their primary care provider first. The two most prominent diagnoses would be confirmed HIV or hepatitis.
Aside from those two conditions, I would say you should avoid donating blood if you are acutely ill, meaning you have a cold, bronchitis, etc. You can see more common reasons why people can’t donate on the American Red Cross website.
Who would you encourage to donate?
Why is it so important for people to donate if they're willing and able?
There are four main blood types: AB, A, B and O. Some have an Rh factor (+) and some do not (-). You can learn more about the differences in blood types and what makes them unique here.
Blood type and the presence or absence of the protein Rh factor determine the types of blood a person can receive during a transfusion. Type O can be used universally for transfusions, so we want those with this blood type to donate as much as possible. But realistically, that's not how the populations break out. That’s why we need people of all blood types to donate so that there’s better access to blood that’s compatible with the general population so it’s available when a patient needs it.
Personally, with my blood type, AB, I only match a small population of people. But I still try to donate when I can. With plasma, however, it’s the opposite. I have the best plasma because it can be given to a broad population. But you can only donate plasma twice a week and it is fairly time-consuming.
As a physician, I will confirm that there aren’t any inherent benefits to bloodletting unless you have specific conditions. With this in mind, I understand why those who are fearful of needles or the donation process, or those who don’t tolerate the donation process well, don’t give blood. Just like we teach people when we coach them on CPR, you have to assess your situation and personal safety first, before trying to save others.
The biggest motivation truly is the altruism of knowing that your blood is going to go out into the world and save somebody, which has mental health benefits and can be greatly rewarding.
How safe is the donation process for those who are generally in good health?
Just like I can't promise anything at 100% safe, the same is true for the blood donation process. With that in mind, it’s an incredibly safe process. The last time there was a major blood-related illness with blood donations was back in the 1960s, and that's why we check people for hepatitis nowadays, as well as just about any other condition that could be harmful to a recipient.
In fact, the Red Cross can actually catch blood disorders that might otherwise get missed because they haven't shown up yet in basic bloodwork. They run the blood against a couple of different things, not just blood-related illnesses, but also illnesses that can be located in the blood.
This also brings us to an additional benefit to donating blood. You can find out your blood type, which is great because it's better to learn your blood type before you end up in the hospital.
What should those donating blood do to prepare in the days leading up to the donation?
In general, before the day of the donation, I always recommend:
- Get plenty of sleep – Rest doesn’t make your blood healthier necessarily, but it does reduce the likelihood that you’ll feel the side effects many experience, like jitteriness, fatigue, etc.
- Drink water – Always make sure that you drink plenty of water the day before and the morning of the donation to increase the volume of fluids in your arteries. Doing this will prevent feeling depleted or “wiped out” following the donation.
- Avoid alcohol – Please don't drink any alcohol the night before the blood donation.
What should those donating blood do on the day of the donation?
- Eat wisely – In general, try to eat healthy. This doesn’t change the blood, but it will impact the way you feel following the donation. I always recommend a little extra iron on the morning of a blood donation. This could be a protein bar with plenty of iron, or beef, chicken, fish, legumes, beans, spinach or an iron-fortified cereal you enjoy.
- Be mindful of medications – Those who take daily NSAIDS, like ibuprofen or naproxen, talk to the Red Cross or your primary care doctor about skipping them the day of the donation, as they can make your blood thinner. In many cases, they recommend stopping the NSAID one to three days before the donation. It can be five days with aspirin.
- Drink water – Consume an extra glass or two of water to get your blood going before a donation.
What should those donating blood do during the donation?
I really enjoy the squishy toys they often give you. Using these during the donation process is a form of neural feedback. Essentially, when you contract the muscle, it not only helps pump your blood, but it also forces you to focus on that area. The more nervous and anxious someone is, the more they tend to feel symptoms. So that steady pulsing sensation in your hand keeps you engaged but less anxious. It can reduce the risk of fainting, which is typically caused by thinking about fainting.
If you know that you don’t react well when seeing blood, don’t look. Talk to the people assisting with your donation and make sure they know that you do not want to see anything. They can cover your arm and materials to prevent any negative reactions.
If you feel dizzy or light-headed, be sure you tell the care team.
What should those donating blood do following the donation?
- Rest – Take it easy for the rest of the day.
- Skip the tough workout – While I recommend exercising before a donation, don’t work out following or the day after you donate blood. Particularly if you are going to be lifting weights or working a muscle group where you had the needle poke.
- Avoid alcohol – Don't drink alcohol following a blood donation.
- Don’t rush – They'll let you stay in the break area for as long as you need to following your blood donation, so don’t hurry. Some people tolerate the process very well, while others need a bit more recovery time. Particularly if you’re a first-time donor, go slowly. Take at least five minutes before leaving. Avoid standing too quickly as well, which can cause you to pass out.
Why are you so passionate about blood donation?
Honestly, my favorite thing about blood donation is that it's one of the few ways to have an impact on someone's life. You won’t know whose life it is, but often the Red Cross will follow up and let you know how many people you helped. It’s a beautiful thing.
I'm passionate about the subject and a long-time plasma and blood donor. I encourage you to consider giving the greatest gift and impacting the lives of others. You can learn more about the donation process and schedule a donation by visiting redcrossblood.org.