What You Should Know About Blood Transfusions

Blood transfusions are common medical procedures that can be life-saving. The primary reason for needing a transfusion is blood loss. Different types of blood products may be given during a transfusion, including whole blood, red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma. Although transfusion therapy has risks, people who receive a blood transfusion usually experience mild or no side effects, and severe or fatal reactions are rare.

Key takeaways:
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    A blood transfusion is a typically safe and common procedure that people may need if they lose a large amount of blood or have certain medical conditions.
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    Blood transfusions can consist of either whole blood or its parts. Most involve the transfusion of blood parts to treat specific problems or illnesses.
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    Complications of blood transfusions are rare but possible. A blood transfusion is safest when a person uses their blood or the donor’s blood type matches the recipient’s.

What is a blood transfusion?

A blood transfusion is a routine medical procedure. It involves putting blood or blood parts into a person’s bloodstream through an intravenous (IV) line placed in a vein, usually in the arm. An IV line, or “IV” for short, allows healthcare providers to deliver blood quickly into the body.

If a healthcare provider determines that a person needs a blood transfusion, blood testing takes place before the procedure. This testing ensures that if a person (the recipient) gets blood from someone else (the donor), it’s a good match. Once the transfusion begins, it takes about 1 to 4 hours to complete, and the results are typically rapid and positive. A healthcare provider will carefully monitor for any side effects or complications during and after the procedure.

When is a blood transfusion necessary?

There are many reasons why a person may need a blood transfusion. The most common one is to replace lost blood. A person may also receive a transfusion if they have a medical condition that affects the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body, fight infections, or clot normally. A transfusion may also be necessary if the body isn’t making enough blood.

Specific purposes of blood transfusions may include:

  • To replace blood lost due to injury, surgery, or childbirth.
  • To treat severe anemia caused by chronic illnesses.
  • To treat other blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease or hemophilia.
  • To treat the effects of cancers or cancer treatments.
  • To treat a weakened immune system.

Blood transfusion types

People can receive different types of blood products through a blood transfusion. A blood product is any therapeutic substance taken from human blood for transfusion, including whole blood and its various parts. Whole blood consists of many parts, each doing a different job. These include red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma.

So, some of the types of blood transfusions people can receive are:

Whole blood transfusions: Most blood used for transfusions comes from whole blood donated by volunteers, which is often broken down into different parts after donation. Although whole blood transfusions are rare, they’re used to treat people who need all blood parts, such as those with severe blood loss. When whole blood is not required or is unavailable, people receive only the specific blood parts they need.

Red blood cell transfusions: Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Transfusions of red blood cells may be used to treat anemia or blood loss.

White blood cell transfusions: White blood cells help protect the body from infections. White blood cell transfusions are rare but may be given to help fight infection in people receiving chemotherapy or who have severely weakened immune systems.

Platelet transfusions: Platelets are tiny blood cells that help control bleeding by binding together to form blood clots. Transfusions of these cells are often given to prevent excessive bleeding in people with low platelet counts or other platelet disorders.

Plasma infusions: Plasma is the liquid part of blood. It contains essential proteins such as clotting factors, a group of proteins needed to form blood clots. People with illnesses where the body doesn’t make enough clotting factors may need plasma infusions.

Other types of transfusions include:

Autologous transfusions: A person with a scheduled surgery requiring a blood transfusion may be able to receive their blood by donating it ahead of time. This procedure is called an autologous transfusion. Because it ensures that the blood is an exact match and there’s no risk of infection, it’s the safest type of transfusion.

Directed blood donations: This is when family members or friends donate blood to a specific person needing a transfusion for a scheduled procedure. No evidence is available that these donations are safer than blood from the general public.

Blood transfusion risks

Most blood transfusions are safe and go very well due to careful testing, handling, and storage of donated blood. Typically, people who receive a transfusion experience little or no side effects. However, complications (also known as transfusion reactions) can occur. These can range in severity from common and minor reactions to rare and life-threatening ones.

Relatively common complications of blood transfusions include:

  • Mild allergic reactions.
  • Febrile non-hemolytic reactions (fever, chills, or both without damage to blood cells).

Less common but more serious complications of blood transfusions may include:

  • Severe allergic reactions, or anaphylaxis.
  • Acute hemolytic reactions (the body attacks donated blood cells).
  • Circulatory overload (too much blood in the body).
  • Sepsis (the body’s life-threatening response to bacteria in the blood).

Some infectious diseases that can spread through sexual contacts, like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), can also spread through blood transfusions. However, the chance of getting an STI or other infectious diseases from a transfusion is extremely low. Specifically, the risk of HIV infection is about one in two million. Overall, the blood supply is very safe due to the careful screening of donors and testing of donated blood for infectious diseases.

Blood transfusion benefits

Every year, blood transfusions save and improve the lives of millions of people. Specifically, transfusions help people with life-threatening illnesses live longer and improve their quality of life. They also help make complex medical and surgical procedures possible.

A blood transfusion is a medical procedure in which a person receives whole blood or a blood part due to blood loss or a medical condition. Volunteers usually donate the blood that people get through a transfusion. Due to careful testing to ensure the donor’s blood type matches the recipient’s and testing for infectious diseases, blood transfusions are typically very safe.

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