Donating Blood: What You Need to Know

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With the hectic bustle of the holidays, bad weather and spikes in illness, rates of blood donation tend to dip significantly in the month of January, which is one reason why this month has been designated National Blood Donor Month. Every two seconds, someone in our country needs blood – and we never know when we or someone we love could be one of them. Learn how to join the ranks of the 6.8 million Americans who donate blood and help give the gift of life to someone who needs you.

Why donate blood?
Every day, hospitals and emergency rooms need more than 36,000 units of blood to help patients who have cancer or other diseases such as sickle cell disease, who need new organs, or who have been hurt in accidents. According to the American Red Cross, one car accident victim could require as many as 100 pints of blood. Blood cannot be manufactured, so it must be donated.

Approximately 38 percent of the U.S. population is estimated to be eligible to donate blood, but less than 10 percent actually does. While type O-negative blood is most in demand because it can be donated to anyone regardless of their blood type, all types of blood are needed. Just one blood donation can be used to save up to three people.

Who is eligible to donate?
In general, blood donors must feel healthy enough to go about their usual activities, and if they have a chronic condition like diabetes, it must be under control. In most states, donors have to be at least 17 years old (or 16 with parental consent) and weigh at least 110 pounds (weight requirements vary if donors are under 18 or in high school).

Certain qualifications may make people ineligible to donate blood or may require that a donor wait a certain amount of time before donating. These include:

  • People with a temperature above 99.5° F, people with a productive cough and those who don’t feel well should also wait until they are better to donate.
  • People on antibiotics for an acute infection should wait until they have taken the last pill to donate blood, but preventative antibiotics for a dental procedure or acne are okay. A donation is okay 10 days after taking antibiotics.
  • Those who have traveled to an area where malaria is found must wait 12 months before donating, or three years if they lived there. Those who have traveled to Iraq must wait 12 months after their return. People who have spent large amounts of time in a country where mad cow disease is found cannot donate blood.
  • People who have had syphilis or gonorrhea must wait 12 months after treatment to donate. People who have ever had a positive HIV test or viral hepatitis should not donate.
  • Men who have had sex with men are currently not allowed to donate blood if they have been sexually active in the past 12 months, a policy which has been very controversial.
  • People who got a tattoo in a state that does not regulate tattoo parlors must wait 12 months.
  • Pregnant women may not donate until six weeks after giving birth.
  • Anyone who has ever used IV drugs not prescribed by a physician cannot donate.
  • Blood pressure must be between 90/50 and 180/100.
  • Certain medications and other health conditions may impact donor eligibility. For a full list of eligibility criteria, check the American Red Cross website here.

What does donating blood involve?
Before going to donate blood, it’s important to hydrate with water or other healthy fluids. Also, be sure to bring an ID and a list of medications you are taking. Wear comfortable clothes with sleeves that can roll up.

At the donor center, each donor must first register and provide a brief medical history. They then undergo a brief mini-physical exam to check temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and hemoglobin. All information provided is confidential. Blood is then taken using a sterile, unused needle. The actual donation process takes about 8 to 10 minutes, but the Red Cross says donors should expect to be at the donation center for about an hour from start to finish. Average blood volume in an adult is about 10 pints, about one of which is taken during donation. After donation, most centers will provide drinks like water and juice and some snacks. You should hydrate with water and avoid strenuous exercise or heavy lifting for the rest of the day.

A healthy donor can donate red blood cells every 56 days. People may also donate platelets, plasma or double red cells, though the donation process for these may differ from what is described above.