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What You Need to Know About Donating Blood

There may be some restrictions related to your health and medications


If you’re looking for ways to help people in your community, one of the best things you can do is donate blood. And if this is a way you’d like to do your part, you’ll will be happy to know there’s no upper age limit on donating blood.

But are there other reasons you might be a bad candidate for donating blood?

There are restrictions for donating blood in the United States, according to the American Red Cross. For example, you need to be in generally good health and weigh at least 110 pounds.

Before you can donate blood, you need to provide identification, and “we ask a bunch of questions,” says Dr. Ross Herron, divisional chief medical officer of the American Red Cross Western Division, based in Los Angeles.

Many of the questions relate to whether you’ve had cardiovascular diseases and whether you have ever tested positive for hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV. If you’ve had cancer, your eligibility depends on the type of cancer and your treatment history.

You’ll also be asked whether you have traveled in the last year to regions where there is high risk of certain diseases, such as malaria.

To Donate Blood, Expect a ‘Mini-Physical’

And you’ll get what Herron calls a “mini-physical” exam. You’ll have your temperature and blood pressure checked and have a fingerstick to check the hemoglobin level in your blood. Hemoglobin is a protein in your blood that transports oxygen.

Low hemoglobin level is the No. 1 reason, in all age groups, for being unable to donate blood, Herron says. People who are ineligible because of low hemoglobin are counseled to eat iron-rich foods or, in extreme cases, to see a physician.

Being on certain medications can cause someone to be ineligible to donate blood also, Herron says. Usually it’s the underlying disease the medicine is prescribed for that causes a potential donor to be turned away.

The act of donating blood “doesn’t affect your health very much,” according to Herron. But if you donate frequently, he recommends taking an iron supplement. “You do lose iron,” Herron notes.

Risks to Consider Before Donating Blood

Dr. Eiran Gorodeski, a geriatric cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, warns that “as we age, certain things can change, which make donating blood a bit more risky and complicated.”

In general, as we age, there’s less blood volume, less muscle mass and bone density goes down. The lower blood volume, along with changes in the nervous system that control blood pressure, can put older adults at greater risk of feeling dizzy or passing out after donating blood, Gorodeski says.

Older adults who are worried about particular health conditions should seek medical advice before donating blood “to make sure they are in good enough shape,” he says.

Even older adults who are in robust health should make sure they are well hydrated before donating blood, and spend extra time sitting down afterward, Gorodeski recommends.

Blood is Needed Year-Round

Many people think about donating blood during the holiday season, but Herron points out that there’s always a need. “The need for blood doesn’t take a vacation,” he says.

Blood cannot be stockpiled. In November, the Red Cross issued an urgent appeal for donors because about 21,000 fewer donations were collected during September and October than required to fill hospital needs. A thousand fewer blood drives were held over the same time period. Natural disasters, like hurricanes, often lead to widespread cancellations of blood drives.

Another factor contributing to the constant need for blood donations, Herron says, is that traditionally the most loyal blood donors have been members of the World War II generation. Now, “we don’t have those ‘Greatest Generation’ people. Many people are 50 and up. We need them to take over. They have to step up,” he says.

Different Types of Blood Donations

If you have Type O negative blood, you’ll be especially popular at a blood donation center because in an emergency, Type O (which doesn’t have A or B markers, and doesn’t have an Rh factor) may be given to anyone.

Instead of donating whole blood, you can choose to donate only platelets. During the platelet donation process, blood is removed from one arm and a centrifuge separates out the platelets. The rest of the blood is then returned to the donor through the other arm. While whole blood donors can safely donate every 56 days, platelet donors can donate every seven days, up to 24 times year.

“There are no more adverse affects to donating platelets. You do have to stick around longer,” Herron says, but he adds that the newest platelet pheresis machines are so fast that “people have complained that they don’t have enough time to finish the movies” that are provided for donors to watch while donating.

If you plan to donate blood, Herron says you can save time by using the Red Cross RapidPass technology. It lets you complete pre-donation reading and answer health history questions from a personal computer or mobile device before you go to a blood drive or donation center.

You can then print your RapidPass form or show it on your mobile device when your arrive to donate. Red Cross staff then scan the RapidPass form, review your answers and complete the other aspects of the health history exam.

You also can save time by using the Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS to schedule a specific time to donate.

By Stephenie Overman
Stephenie Overman writes about workplace and health issues. She is the author of Next-Generation Wellness at Work.

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