By Carli King
Ring in the new year with a lifesaving resolution: donating blood in 2023. Even a donation of one pint of blood has the possibility to save up to three lives1. Despite approximately 63% of the United States population being considered eligible blood donors2, only a mere 3% of the population currently donates blood3. Kick off 2023 and National Blood Donor Month (Figure 1) by celebrating blood donors and learning about the importance of blood donations!
What is National Blood Donor Month?
On December 31, 1969, former President Richard Nixon established January as National Blood Donor Month in an effort to honor current voluntary blood donors and inspire citizens to give blood2. January was declared National Blood Donor Month in the effort to encourage blood donations to compensate for the period of blood shortages that inevitably arise in January following a busy holiday season or inclement weather. During critical blood shortages in 2022 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Cross even partnered with the NFL to offer one donor from January 2022 a trip to the Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles as a thank you for donating blood during a time of immediate need3.
On average, an adult has 10.5 pints of whole blood in their body4. Whole blood contains red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets suspended in plasma. As such, whole blood can be transfused to a single patient or separated into individual components to be used for multiple patients in need of specialized therapeutic options5. As a blood donor, it is important to understand the role of each component of blood, how whole blood or individual components are utilized for transfusions, and what happens to our blood after we donate it.
- Whole blood: Whole blood donations are the most common type of blood donation and can be given at any Red Cross blood drive or center in an hour and can be given every 56 days up to 6 times a year6. Whole blood donations are relatively simple, in that they require minimal processing prior to transfusion and, if not needed immediately, can be refrigerated for storage for up to 35 days5. Patients that require all components of blood after sustaining significant blood loss may require whole blood transfusions.
- Red blood cells: Red blood cells (RBC) carry oxygen throughout the body. RBC donations, referred to as “Power Red” donations by the Red Cross, require separation of RBCs from whole blood by removing plasma and white blood cells. This type of donation can be given every 112 days up to 3 times per year6. RBC donations can be refrigerated for up to 42 days or frozen and stored for more than 10 yearsfor later use5. Patients with chronic anemia or other blood disorders, benefit greatly from RBC transfusions.
- Platelets: Platelets line blood vessels to assist in stopping or preventing bleeding5. Unlike whole blood donations, platelet donations cannot occur at blood drives and require appointments at blood centers. These can take approximately three hours and can be given up to 24 times a year6. Platelet donations often require an apheresis machine, which draws whole blood from the donor’s arm, separates blood into its individual components, isolates the platelets, and returns the other blood components to the donor in order to isolate up to 6x as many platelets as whole blood donations5 (Figure 2). Platelet donors are in constant need as platelets are stored at room temperature for only 5 days. Platelet transfusions are most commonly used during cancer treatments or surgical procedures, such as organ transplants6.
- Plasma: Plasma is the liquid portion of blood that serves several crucial functions such as maintaining blood pressure and volume, carrying electrolytes, assisting in maintaining proper pH, and supplying proteins for blood clotting and immunity5. Plasma is frozen within 24 hours of donation and can be stored for up to a year after isolated from whole blood donations or during plasma donations, referred to as “AB Elite” donations by the Red Cross, every 28 days up to 13 times per year6. Plasma can be transfused to patients in its entirety as needed for trauma, burn, and shock patients5. However, in some cases, plasma derivatives can be separated by fractionation for patients with more specific needs. Prepared from plasma donations, cryoprecipitated antihemophilic factor, is rich in clotting factors and can be specifically used to reduce blood loss or for blood-clotting disorders5.
- White blood cells: White blood cells, are a component of the blood involved in fighting disease. Due to their function, white blood cells can be dangerous to patients receiving transfusions and are often removed from whole blood donations to reduce risk of immune suppression or release of toxins to the recipient5. However, granulocytes, a type of white blood cell, can be donated on an as-needed basis by apheresis and given to patients that don’t respond to traditional antibiotic treatments within 24 hours of donation5.
What happens to donated blood?
In alignment with the notion “safe blood saves lives,” blood donations are thoroughly tested prior to use for transfusions and under regulation of the United States Food and Drug Administration. In the United States, all blood donations are typed and then tested for the following infectious disease pathogens: Hepatitis B virus (HBV), Hepatitis C virus (HCV), Human Immunodeficiency virus Types 1 and 2 (HIV), Human T-Lymphotropic Virus Types I and II (HTLV), Treponema pallidum (syphilis), and West Nile virus, in addition to Trypanosoma cruzi (Chagas disease) for first-time donors4.
The five most common patient populations that receive blood transfusions are cancer patients, maternity care, pediatric patients, Sickle Cell Disease patients, and trauma patients4. Strikingly, 1 out of every 83 deliveries in the United States requires blood transfusions, an increase of 54% compared to 20064. Victims of automobile accidents often need up to 50 pints of blood, while an organ transplant can require 40 pints of blood, 30 pints of platelets, and 25 pints of plasma1. Together, blood donations are critical and necessary for blood transfusions, a common procedure required for many medical conditions and treatments.
How do I know if I am eligible to give blood?
Eligibility for blood donation is stringent, in order to achieve collection of “safe blood.” As of 2018, there were 38 documented donor exclusion factors, ranging from short-term, long-term, and permanent factors2. Eligibility also varies based upon type of blood donation. For whole blood donations, donors must be over the age of 16 and weigh over 110 lbs in most states. In contrast, for RBC donations, male donors must be at least 17 years old, 5’1” tall, and 130 lbs, while female donors must be at least 19 years old, 5’5” tall, and 150 lbs7. The most common reasons people cannot donate blood include cold or flu symptoms, specific medications, low iron levels, and travel outside of the United States7. Many of these reasons are variable and even if you were deferred for them in the past, you may be eligible to donate blood now.
- While whole blood donations are the most common form of blood donations, other donation forms include platelets, plasma, or red blood cell donations.
- Celebrate National Blood Donor Month 2023 by donating blood at your local blood drive.
- Regardless of eligibility, you can still support blood donation by educating others or volunteering at local blood drives.
- Community Blood Center. “About Blood.” https://givingblood.org/about-blood/blood-facts.aspx
- To, L., Dunnington, T., Thomas, C., Love, K., McCullough, J., and Riley, W. “The United States’ potential blood donor pool: updating the prevalence of donor-exclusion factors on the pool of potential donors.” Transfusion. January 2020.
- American Red Cross. “Help Save Lives during National Blood Donor Month.” January 4, 2022. https://www.redcross.org/about-us/news-and-events/news/2021/help-save-lives-during-national-blood-donor-month.html
- America’s Blood Centers. “U.S. Blood Donation Statistics and Public Messaging Guide.” May 2022. https://americasblood.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Whitepaper-National-Stats_5.22.pdf
- American Red Cross. “Blood Components.” https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/types-of-blood-donations/blood-components.html
- American Red Cross. “Types of Blood Donations.” https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/types-of-blood-donations.html
- American Red Cross. “Eligibility Requirements.” https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/eligibility-requirements.html