What Is the Universal Recipient Blood Type?

Understanding Universal Donors and Recipients

Human blood for transfusion in Boston
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Question: What is a Universal Recipient?

What is a universal recipient? I've heard of a universal donor, but I am not familiar with a universal recipient.


A universal recipient is a medical term for a person with the AB blood type. They are called universal recipients because they can receive a blood transfusion from a person with any blood type, not just their own blood type. To put it another way, the immune system of a person with AB blood will accept blood from all possible donors, whether they have O, A, B or AB blood.

So how is it that the rarest blood type is also the one that is a universal recipient? The answer lies in the antigens that are present in most blood types. O blood types are unique in that they have no antigens, A blood types have an antigen that is specific and unique to A blood, as do B blood types. The AB blood type means that the both of antigens for A and B blood are both present.

Since both A and B antigens are present in a person with AB blood, the recipient won't reject the blood. The body identifies that blood as "self" rather than "foreign". O blood has no antigens, and is referred to as universal donor blood, so that will not cause a reaction. So a person with AB blood has all of the antigens that are possible, and an O negative person has no antigens that would cause a reaction.  

Reaction to a Blood Transfusion

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a reaction caused by transfusing the wrong type of blood, which can be and often is fatal, and an allergic reaction to the blood transfusion, which is possible regardless of blood type.


An allergic reaction to a blood transfusion is not caused by a blood type mismatch, it is caused by the recipient's body identifying the blood as "foreign" and the immune system then attempts to destroy the foreign cells.  Also known as an acute hemolytic transfusion reaction, this type of reaction typically results in itching, fever, chills, itching and a rash.

 It typically passes in 24-48 hours and is usually treated by stopping the transfusion and administering a dose of Benadryl to reduce the reaction.

Organ Donation and Universal Recipients

Receiving a blood transfusion is not the only time this information matters.  An individual who needs an organ transplant could also benefit from being a universal recipient.  If a patient has the AB blood type and needs an organ, they could accept an organ from donors of all blood types.  The process of matching a donor and recipient is more complicated than that, as there are other reasons a donor and recipient may not be compatible, but, generally speaking, a person with the AB blood type can receive an organ from a donor of any blood type.


50 Quick Facts. The American Red Cross. Accessed October, 2010. http://www.givelife2.org/sponsor/quickfacts.asp

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