Every summer, the need for blood donors is critical. Blood donors are volunteers who agree to have their blood drawn so it can be given to the millions of people who need blood transfusions. The need for blood and blood products never ends. People need blood transfusions for surgery, after an accident, because they have a disease that requires regular transfusions, are undergoing chemotherapy, or have had an organ or bone marrow transplant.

The reasons for needing blood are as varied as the reasons why Americans regularly volunteer to donate their blood. Most donors say it makes them feel good to know they are helping others or even saving lives. Some donate because a loved one needs blood.

If you’ve ever considered donating blood, here’s what you can expect.

Types of blood donations

You have the option of how often and what blood products you donate.

  • Whole blood is the most common type of donation. About a pint of whole blood is drawn and then separated into its components – platelets, plasma and red cells. The actual draw takes about 15 minutes and you can donate every two months.
  • Platelets are a special part of whole blood. A cell-separating machine is used during a process called apheresis. It collects the platelets and some of the plasma. The rest of the blood is returned to the donor through the other arm. Platelets can be donated every seven days or 24 times a year.
  • Plasma is collected by apheresis at the same time as platelets, or can be done separately. Plasma can be donated every month.
  • Double red cells donation also uses apheresis. These cells can only be donated three times a year, or every 112 days. It takes one to two hours if you are donating red cells, plasma or platelets.

Safety first

Donating blood or blood products is very safe. New, sterile, disposable equipment is used for each donor, so there’s no risk of contracting a blood infection.

Most healthy adults can donate a pint of blood without any problems.  The body can replace the lost fluids within 24 hours of a donation. After several weeks, your body replaces the red blood cells.

Who can donate?

Blood and blood products donors must be:

  • In good health
  • 17 years of age or older; no upper age limit
  • Weigh at least 110 pounds
  • Be able to pass the physical and health history assessments
  • There are additional requirements for double red cell donation

It is essential to keep our blood supply safe. To eliminate blood-borne infections, people in the following high-risk groups are not eligible to donate blood:

  • Ever injected drugs, including steroids, not prescribed by a doctor
  • Have tested positive for HIV (AIDS virus)
  • Had hepatitis after his or her 11th birthday
  • Had babesiosis or Chagas disease
  • Ever received clotting factor concentrates
  • Ever taken etretinate (Tegison) for psoriasis
  • Have risk factors for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) or has a blood relative with CJD
  • Men who have had sexual contact with other men, since 1977
  • Men or women who have engaged in sex for money or drugs
  • Spent three months or more in the United Kingdom from 1980 through 1996
  • Received a blood transfusion in the United Kingdom or France from 1980 to the present
  • Spent five years in Europe from 1980 to the present

What’s it like to donate blood?

Before you donate:

  • Eat a healthy meal but don’t eat fatty foods such as hamburgers, fries or ice cream. The tests run on all donated blood can be affected by fats that stay in your blood for several hours after eating fatty foods.
  • Drink an extra 16 ounces of water or other fluids.
  • Take your normal medications as prescribed. Platelet donors should not take aspirin for two days prior to donating.
  • Bring your driver’s license or two other forms of identification. Also, bring a list of all medications you are taking (or bring the original containers in a sack).

Before donating, you will:

  • Fill out a confidential medical history. It includes questions about behaviors that carry a risk of blood-borne infections.
  • Have a brief physical examination that includes blood pressure, pulse, temperature and a finger stick to draw a small blood sample. The sample is used to check your blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.

During the donation procedure, you will:

  • Sit or lie in a reclining chair with your arm extended on an armrest. Your inside elbow will be cleaned with alcohol.
  • Have a new, sterile needle inserted gently into an arm vein. The needle is attached to a thin, plastic tube and a blood bag. The initial blood is collected into tubes for testing for blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, syphilis, West Nile virus, Chagas disease or any bacterial contamination. Then, about a pint of blood is allowed to fill the bag.
  • Have a bandage placed on the needle site and a dressing is wrapped around your arm.

After the procedure, you will:

  • Sit in an observation area where you will eat a light snack and rest for at least 15 minutes.
  • Need to drink extra fluids for the next day or two.
  • Need to avoid strenuous physical activity or heavy lifting for five hours.
  • Keep the bandage on your arm for five hours.
  • Report any continued bleeding, raised bump or pain at the needle site; or pain/tingling in your arm.
  • Report any nausea, dizziness or lightheadedness that occurs after resting, eating and drinking.
  • Report any symptoms of a cold or flu within four days of donating to the donation center. Bacterial infections can be transmitted by blood to another person via transfusion. Contact the center so your blood won’t be used.
  • Lie down with your feet up if you feel lightheaded.

For more information or donation locations, contact the American Red Cross at 1-800-733-2767.