Frequently Asked Questions about Blood Transfusions

This information includes frequently asked questions about having a blood transfusion.

Your doctor has recommended that you have a blood transfusion. Many people have questions about why they need a blood transfusion. Some worry about the risk of being infected with HIV, hepatitis, or other viruses. The information below will help answer some of your questions.

What is my blood made up of?

Your blood is made up of plasma and 3 types of blood cells:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen to your tissues.
  • Platelets that help form clots and stop bleeding.
  • White blood cells that fight infection.
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Why do I need to have a blood transfusion?

You may need a transfusion because of the effect of a disease, surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments on your blood. You may need a transfusion of red blood cells if you have lost a lot of blood or your red blood cell count is low (anemia). You may need a platelet transfusion if your platelet count is low (thrombocytopenia). White blood cell transfusions are rare and are only done in very specific situations.

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Does it hurt?

It does not hurt to have a blood transfusion. The only pain you may feel is when the needle is inserted into your vein. This pain is brief. If you have a central venous catheter, the red blood cells or platelets may be given through it. This will not hurt. If you have a Mediport®, it will be the same type of needle stick that you have for chemotherapy.

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How long does it take?

A transfusion of red blood cells usually takes 2 to 4 hours. A transfusion of platelets takes 30 to 60 minutes.

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Are there any risks associated with a blood transfusion?

Yes, blood transfusions have some risks. These risks include the very small chance of having an allergic reaction or getting an infection through contaminated blood. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about these risks before you receive a transfusion.

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How can I be sure the blood is safe?

After it is donated, the blood is tested for:

  • Syphilis
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Exposure to the HIV virus
  • The presence of a virus associated with a very rare form of leukemia
  • West Nile virus
  • Trypanosoma cruzi(a parasite that causes Chagas disease)

If the donated blood tests positive for any of these infections, the blood is discarded and not given to any patients.

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How can I be sure that the blood I receive is the same type as mine?

Your blood type is either A, B, AB, or O. It is either Rh positive (+) or Rh negative (-).

Your blood type is checked with a test called a “type and crossmatch”. The results of the test are used to match your blood type with the blood in our blood bank. Your healthcare provider will check to make sure that the blood is the correct match for you before he or she gives you the transfusion.

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Can a friend or relative donate blood specifically for me?

Yes, friends and relatives can donate both red blood cells and platelets. These are called directed donations. These donations are tested in the same way as other donations. If the blood tests positive for any of the viruses listed above, the donor will be notified privately.

If the donor’s blood type is not compatible with your blood type, the red blood cells are released for use in other patients.

Directed donations are held for a patient for 25 days. After that, the blood is released for use in other patients.

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Can I give blood for myself?

Under certain circumstances, we encourage people scheduled for surgery to donate their own blood. It is stored and given back if and when you need it. This is called an autologous donation.

Ask your doctor if you can donate your own blood. If this is possible, arrangements will be made with the blood bank for you to begin banking your blood. Autologous blood donations can be given several times during the month before surgery. For more information about autologous blood donations, ask your healthcare provider for the resource Being Your Own Blood Donor.

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What if I don’t want a blood transfusion?

It is always your right to refuse a treatment. However, keep in mind that doctors recommend a transfusion only when they think it is necessary. A large amount of blood is lost during some types of surgery. If this blood is not replaced, you can die.

Some diseases and treatments can lower the number of red blood cells in your body, so you may not have enough cells carrying oxygen. Other conditions lower the number of platelets in your body, which puts you at high risk of bleeding. Any of these complications can be life-threatening. A blood transfusion can be life-saving.

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Are there any substitutes for blood if I need a transfusion?

There are no substitutes for blood. This is why we are so grateful to the many family members and friends who donate blood for the benefit of our patients.

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Is there anything to worry about during or after a blood transfusion?

A blood transfusion can sometimes cause reactions. The most common symptoms are fever, chills, and hives. These can be treated with a variety of medications. Transfusion reactions are rarely life-threatening. Your nurse will monitor you carefully while your blood transfusion is taking place.

Allergic reactions can sometimes occur up to 48 hours after a transfusion. Call your doctor immediately if you have:

  • A temperature of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher
  • Chills
  • Flushing of the face
  • Hives, rash, or itching
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Low back pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness or fainting
  • Blood in your urine

If you have chest pain, call 911 immediately.

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