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Blood Transfusions

Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

What Is a Blood Transfusion?  

A blood transfusion is a safe, common procedure in which blood is given to you through an intravenous (IV) line in one of your blood vessels.

Blood transfusions are done to replace blood lost during surgery or due to a serious injury. A transfusion also may be done if your body can’t make blood properly because of an illness.

During a blood transfusion, a small needle is used to insert an IV line into one of your blood vessels. Through this line, you receive healthy blood. The procedure usually takes 1 to 4 hours, depending on how much blood you need.

Blood transfusions are very common. Each year, almost 5 million Americans need a blood transfusion. Most blood transfusions go well. Mild complications can occur. Very rarely, serious problems develop.

Blood is made up of various parts, including red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets (PLATE-lets), and plasma. Blood is transfused either as whole blood (with all its parts) or, more often, as individual parts.

Blood Types

Every person has one of the following blood types: A, B, AB, or O. Also, every person’s blood is either Rh-positive or Rh-negative. So, if you have type A blood, it’s either A positive or A negative.

The blood used in a transfusion must work with your blood type. If it doesn’t, antibodies (proteins) in your blood attack the new blood and make you sick.

Type O blood is safe for almost everyone. About 40 percent of the population has type O blood. People who have this blood type are called universal donors. Type O blood is used for emergencies when there’s no time to test a person’s blood type.

People who have type AB blood are called universal recipients. This means they can get any type of blood.

If you have Rh-positive blood, you can get Rh-positive or Rh-negative blood. But if you have Rh-negative blood, you should only get Rh-negative blood. Rh-negative blood is used for emergencies when there’s no time to test a person’s Rh type.

Blood Banks

Blood banks collect, test, and store blood. They carefully screen all donated blood for possible infectious agents, such as viruses, that could make you sick. (For more information, see“What Are the Risks of a Blood Transfusion?”)

Blood bank staff also screen each blood donation to find out whether it’s type A, B, AB, or O and whether it’s Rh-positive or Rh-negative. Getting a blood type that doesn’t work with your own blood type will make you very sick. That’s why blood banks are very careful when they test the blood.

To prepare blood for a transfusion, some blood banks remove white blood cells. This process is called white cell or leukocyte (LU-ko-site) reduction. Although rare, some people are allergic to white blood cells in donated blood. Removing these cells makes allergic reactions less likely.

Not all transfusions use blood donated from a stranger. If you’re going to have surgery, you may need a blood transfusion because of blood loss during the operation. If it’s surgery that you’re able to schedule months in advance, your doctor may ask whether you would like to use your own blood, rather than donated blood.

Alternatives to Blood Transfusions 

Researchers are trying to find ways to make blood. There’s currently no man-made alternative to human blood. However, researchers have developed medicines that may help do the job of some blood parts.

For example, some people who have kidney problems can now take a medicine called erythropoietin that helps their bodies make more red blood cells. This means they may need fewer blood transfusions.

Surgeons try to reduce the amount of blood lost during surgery so that fewer patients need blood transfusions. Sometimes they can collect and reuse the blood for the patient.

https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/bt

Your options may be limited by time and health factors, so it is important to begin carrying out your decision as soon as possible. For example, if friends or family members are donating blood for a patient (directed donors), their blood should be drawn several days prior to the anticipated need to allow adequate time for testing and labeling. The exact protocols are hospital and donor site specific.

The safest blood product is your own, so if a transfusion is likely, this is your lowest risk choice. Unfortunately this option is usually only practical when preparing for elective surgery. In most other instances the patient cannot donate their own blood due to the acute nature of the need for blood. Although you have the right to refuse a blood transfusion, this decision may have life-threatening consequences. If you are a parent deciding for your child, you as the parent or guardian must understand that in a life-threatening situation your doctors will act in your child’s best interest to insure your child’s health and wellbeing in accordance with standards of medical care regardless of religious beliefs. Please carefully review this material and decide with your doctor which option(s) you prefer, understanding that your doctor will always act in the best interest of his or her patient.

To assure a safe transfusion make sure your healthcare provider who starts the transfusion verifies your name and matches it to the blood that is going to be transfused. Besides your name, a second personal identifier usually used is your birthday. This assures the blood is given to the correct patient.

If during the transfusion you have symptoms of shortness of breath, itching,fever or chills or just not feeling well, alert the person transfusing the blood immediately.

Blood can be provided from two sources: autologous blood (using your own blood) or donor blood (using someone else’s blood).

Autologous blood (using your own blood)

Pre-operative donation: donating your own blood before surgery. The blood bank draws your blood and stores it until you need it during or after surgery. This option is only for non-emergency (elective) surgery. It has the advantage of eliminating or minimizing the need for someone else’s blood during and after surgery. The disadvantage is that it requires advanced planning which may delay surgery. Some medical conditions may prevent the pre-operative donation of blood products.

Intra-operative autologous transfusion: recycling your blood during surgery. Blood lost during surgery is filtered, and put back into your body during surgery. This can be done in emergency and elective surgeries. It has the advantage of eliminating or minimizing the need for someone else’s blood during surgery. Large amounts of blood can be recycled. This process cannot be used if cancer or infection is present.

Post-operative autologous transfusion: recycling your blood after surgery. Blood lost after surgery is collected, filtered and returned to your body. This can be done in emergency and elective surgeries. It has the advantage of eliminating or minimizing the need for someone else’s blood during surgery. This process can’t be used in patients where cancer or infection is present.

Hemodilution: donating your own blood during surgery. Immediately before surgery, some of your blood is taken and replaced with IV fluids. After surgery, your blood is filtered and returned to you. This is done only for elective surgeries. This process dilutes your own blood so you lose less concentrated blood during surgery. It has the advantage of eliminating or minimizing the need for someone else’s blood during surgery. The disadvantage of this process is that only a limited amount of blood can be removed, and certain medical conditions may prevent the use of this technique.

Apheresis: donating your own platelets and plasma. Before surgery, your platelets and plasma, which help stop bleeding, are withdrawn, filtered and returned to you when you need it later. This can be done only for elective surgeries. This process may eliminate the need for donor platelets and plasma, especially in high blood-loss procedures. The disadvantage of this process is that some medical conditions may prevent apheresis, and in actual practice it has limited applications. 

http://www.medicinenet.com/blood_transfusion/article.htm

Diseases Requiring Blood Transfusion

Cancer

Some illnesses cause your body to make too few platelets or clotting factors. You may need transfusions of just those blood components to make up for low levels.

Cancer may decrease your body’s production of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets by impacting the organs that influence blood count, such as the kidneys, bone marrow and the spleen. Radiation and chemotherapy drugs also can decrease components of the blood. Blood transfusions may be used to counter such effects.

Other illness

Some illnesses cause your body to make too few platelets or clotting factors. You may need transfusions of just those blood components to make up for low levels.

Infection, liver failure or severe burns

If you experience an infection, liver failure or severe burns, you may need a transfusion of plasma. Plasma is the liquid part of blood.

Blood disorders

People with blood diseases may receive transfusions of red blood cells, platelets or clotting factors.

Severe liver malfunction

If you have severe liver problems, you may receive a transfusion of albumin, a blood protein.

Risks

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Blood transfusions are generally considered to be safe. But they do carry some risk of complications. Complications may happen during the transfusion or not for weeks, months or even years afterward. They include the following:

Allergic reaction and hives

If you have an allergic reaction to the transfusion, you may experience hives and itching during the procedure or very soon after. This type of reaction is usually treated with antihistamines. Rarely, a more serious allergic reaction causes difficulty breathing, low blood pressure and nausea.

Fever

If you quickly develop a fever during the transfusion, you may be having a febrile transfusion reaction. Your doctor will stop the transfusion to do further tests before deciding whether to continue. A febrile reaction can also occur shortly after the transfusion. Fever may be accompanied by chills and shaking.

Acute immune hemolytic reaction

This is a very rare but serious transfusion reaction in which your body attacks the transfused red blood cells because the donor blood type is not a good match. In response, your immune system attacks the transfused red blood cells, which are viewed as foreign. These destroyed cells release a substance into your blood that harms your kidneys. This usually occurs during or right after a transfusion. Signs and symptoms include fever, nausea, chills, lower back or chest pain, and dark urine.

Lung injury

Transfusion-related acute lung injury (TRALI) is thought to occur due to antibodies or other biologic substances in the blood components. With TRALI, the lungs become damaged, making it difficult to breathe. Usually, TRALI occurs within one to six hours of the transfusion. People usually recover, especially when treated quickly. Most people who die after TRALI were very sick before the transfusion.

Bloodborne infections

Blood banks screen donors for risk factors and test donated blood to reduce the risk of transfusion-related infections. Infections related to blood transfusion still rarely may occur. It can take weeks or months after a blood transfusion to determine that you’ve been infected with a virus, bacterium or parasite.

The National Institutes of Health offers the following estimates for the risk of a blood donation carrying an infectious disease:

  • HIV — 1 in 2 million donations, which is lower than the risk of being killed by lightning
  • Hepatitis B — 1 in 205,000 donations
  • Hepatitis C — 1 in 2 million donations

Delayed hemolytic reaction

This type of reaction is similar to an acute immune hemolytic reaction, but it occurs much more slowly. Your body gradually attacks the donor red blood cells. It could take one to four weeks to notice a decrease in red blood cell levels.

Iron overload  

If you receive multiple blood transfusions, you may end up with too much iron in your blood. Iron overload (hemochromatosis) can damage parts of your body, including the liver and the heart. You may receive iron chelation therapy, which uses medication to remove excess iron.

Graft-versus-host disease

Transfusion-associated graft-versus-host disease is a very rare condition in which transfused white blood cells attack the recipient’s bone marrow. This disease is usually fatal. It is more likely to affect people with severely weakened immune systems, such as those being treated for leukemia or lymphoma. Signs and symptoms include fever, rash, diarrhea and abnormal liver function test results. Irradiating the blood before transfusing it reduces the risk.

Most of the donated blood collected by the American Red Cross is used for direct blood transfusions. Common types of blood transfusions including platelet, plasma and red blood cell transfusions.

A patient suffering from an iron deficiency or anemia, a condition where the body does not have enough red blood cells, may receive a Red Blood Cell Transfusion. This type of transfusion increases a patient’s hemoglobin and iron levels, while improving the amount of oxygen in the body.

Platelets are a component of blood that stops the body from bleeding. Often patients suffering from leukemia, or other types of cancer, have lower platelet counts as a side effect of their chemotherapy treatments. Patients who have illnesses that prevent the body from making enough platelets have to get regular transfusions to stay healthy.

Plasma is the liquid part of the body’s blood. It contains important proteins and other substances crucial to one’s overall health. Plasma transfusions are used for patients with liver failure, severe infections, and serious burns.

If you experience an infection, liver failure or severe burns, you may need a transfusion of plasma. Plasma is the liquid part of blood.

Blood disorders

People with blood diseases may receive transfusions of red blood cells, platelets or clotting factors.

Severe liver malfunction

If you have severe liver problems, you may receive a transfusion of albumin, a blood protein.

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