9 Things You Didn't Know About Blood Transfusions

Blood transfusions are a necessary treatment for several different blood disorders.  Let's review some facts about blood transfusions.  

There is more than one type of blood transfusion

Platelet transfusion
Platelet transfusion. TEK IMAGES/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

When most people refer to a blood transfusion they mean specifically a red blood cell transfusion.  But there are other options.  You can receive a platelet (blood cells that help blood to clot) or a plasma (liquid portion of blood with the clotting factors) transfusion.  In very rare circumstances people can receive white blood cell transfusions.  These patients typically have a severe infection and very low white blood cells count called neutropenia.

Some people are dependent on transfusions

People with severe forms of thalassemia or other inherited anemias like hereditary spherocytosis or congenital dyserythropoietic anemia cannot manufacture enough red blood cells or hemoglobin on their own.  These patients typically receive blood transfusions on a monthly basis started in childhood.  

Transfusions can be used to treat strokes

Sickle Cells
Sickle Cells. Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Patients with sickle cell disease who experience stroke are treated with blood transfusions to reduce further sickling of the red blood cells and damage to the brain.  They are also at increased risk for repeated strokes; this risk can be reduced with monthly blood transfusions. Also, patients with sickle cell disease who are identified to be high risk for stroke (using an ultrasound called transcranial doppler), are treated with monthly blood transfusions to prevent a stroke from ever happening. 

The transfusion is used to lessen your anemia, not resolve it

Blood Transfusion
Blood Transfusion. Rafe Swan/Cultura/Getty Images

If you require a transfusion for severe anemia, your doctor will likely transfuse you just to get you back into a safe range (able to oxygenate appropriately and not have symptoms of anemia).  Afterwards, when the source of your anemia is identified, more specific treatments are given to help your body replenish your supply.  

Numerous blood transfusions can lead to iron overload

People who require monthly transfusions for sickle cell disease or thalassemia or people receiving frequent red blood cell transfusions during treatment for cancer are at risk for iron overload (hemochromatosis).  Red blood cells contain iron  and our body doesn’t have a mechanism to get rid of excess iron.  When the system is overloaded, the iron is free to cause damage, mostly to the liver and heart.  Fortunately, there are medications called iron chelators that can help eliminate iron from your body.

Stem cell transplants look like blood transfusions

Stem cell (also known as bone marrow) transplant uses the liquid portion of the bone marrow to correct the underlying issues.  So on the day of transplant, a bag of stem cells is infused into the patient that looks very similar to a red blood cell transfusion.    

The risk of viral infection is low

With careful donor selection and laboratory testing, the risk of getting a viral infection from a blood product is low.  The risk of acquiring HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or hepatitis C is 1 in 2 million units.  With hepatitis B the risk is 1 in 800,00.  There is also a risk of bacterial infection particularly from platelets because they are stored at room temperature.  Blood banks screen platelets units and get rid of them if there are concerns about bacteria to prevent this.   

The blood bank takes a lot of time to find the best blood products for you

Donated blood
Donated blood. ERproductions Ltd/Blend Images/Getty Images

Before you can receive a transfusion, your blood type (A, B, AB, or O) and group (Rh positive or negative) must be determined.  Your blood is then screened for antibodies that may cause a transfusion reaction.  Lastly, a trial transfusion is performed in the blood bank called crossmatching.  Your blood and the potential donor blood are mixed together to see if there is any adverse reaction prior to you receiving the blood.    

We need more blood donors

Woman Donating Blood
Woman Donating Blood. Jan Wolak/E+/Getty Images

At this point in time, there is no substitute for blood.  We are dependent on volunteer donors to keep up the supply.  Blood products have a limited shelf life (red blood cells about 42 days and platelets 5 days) meaning they have to be replaced constantly.  By donating blood, you may save a life of another person.  

Blood Transfusions Can Save Lives

Hopefully this helped you understand blood transfusions a little better and how valuable they are as a treatment for many blood disorders.

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