Blood donation

Blood donation

Introduction

Blood donation involves collecting blood from a donor so it can be used to treat someone else.

Blood donations are an essential part of our healthcare system. If we did not have volunteers giving blood, many medical procedures we take for granted could not take place.

Doctors and surgeons rely on blood donations to carry out life-saving and life-enhancing treatments every day.

How can I donate blood?

Thousands of blood donation sessions are held each year by NHS Blood and Transplant, so it’s usually possible to attend one that is convenient for you.

You will need to answer some questions about your health and have a quick blood test before you can donate blood. This is to ensure there is no danger to yourself or someone else.

During a blood donation, a needle is used to collect 470ml (just under one pint) of your blood.

You will need to rest for a short while after a donation, and refreshments will be offered to stop you feeling faint or dizzy.

It is usually recommended that men allow 12 weeks and women 16 weeks between donations.

Read more about how blood donations are performed.

How is donated blood used?

In most cases, your blood will be separated into its component parts so it can be used to treat a variety of conditions. These components are:

  • red blood cells used to treat some types of anaemia and replace blood lost as the result of an accident
  • platelets used to treat problems with bone marrow, such as leukaemia and people with blood clotting disorders
  • plasma used to treat conditions where abnormal clotting causes bleeding, such as liver disease, and where large volumes of blood have been lost

Donated blood may also be used to improve the quality of life of people with a terminal illness.

Read more about how blood donations are used.

Other types of blood donation

There are other types of blood donation that can be used to treat a number of conditions.

Cord blood donation

Cord blood from the placenta and umbilical cord can be donated after a baby has been born. However, a decision must be made before the birth.

Cord blood, which is rich in stem cells, can be used to treat a number of conditions, such as leukaemia.

Read more about cord blood donation.

Platelet donation

If you have a high platelet count in your blood, you may be able to directly donate platelets. The process is similar to giving blood normally, but often takes a bit longer.

Read more about platelet donation.

Who can donate blood?

Most people between the ages of 17 and 66 can donate blood, although you must be in good general health.

To reduce the risk to recipients of donated blood, there are rules about who can and cannot donate.

For example, people who have ever had HIV, syphilis or hepatitis C can never donate blood. Having a recent tattoo, piercing or taking certain medication, may also mean you cannot donate blood.

Read more about who can donate blood.

More blood donors are needed

Although most people are able to give blood, only about 4% of the population donate regularly.

In England, around 8,000 blood transfusions are carried out every day, so there’s a need for blood donations.

As blood can only be safely stored for a relatively short time, hospital blood stocks need to be continuously refreshed. Red blood cells can only be stored for 35 days and platelets (the part of the blood that helps prevent excessive bleeding) can only be stored for seven days.

In particular, blood donations are needed from black and Asian people because the current levels of black and Asian donors are very low. Certain ethnic groups often require certain blood types, so having donations from a wide range of ethnic groups is a more effective way of meeting the potential demand for blood.

Find out more about current blood stocks from NHS Blood and Transplant.

NHS Blood and Transplant

In England and parts of Wales, the blood donation process is overseen by NHS Blood and Transplant. This service relies on voluntary donations from the general public to keep the service running. Donating blood is a relatively quick procedure (it usually takes less than an hour) and is virtually painless.

The NHS Blood and Transplant website provides more information about how you can volunteer to give blood.

You can also book an appointment to donate blood near to where you live or work.

What happens during blood donation

Blood donation is a simple, virtually painless process that takes less than an hour to complete.

Find your nearest centre

NHS Blood and Transplant collects 1.8 million units of blood each year from over 23,000 blood donation sessions across England and North Wales.

To find your nearest blood donation centre, call NHS Blood and Transplant free on 0300 123 23 23. You can make an appointment for a date and time that is convenient for you.

You can enter your postcode below to search for your nearest centre. Alternatively, visit the NHS Blood and Transplant website to book an appointment.

It is recommended that men only donate blood every 12 weeks (three months) and women only donate every 16 weeks (four months). The minimum period between donations is 12 weeks, unless you have a condition called haemochromatosis, in which case a shorter interval may be allowed.

If you have never given blood before, you can register as a blood donor on the NHS Blood and Transplant website.

Before donating blood

Before donating blood, make sure you eat and drink at least a few hours before your appointment and avoid vigorous exercise. This will help stop you feeling faint or dizzy after you have given blood.

Do not drink alcohol before you give blood.

Suitability checks

When you arrive at the donation centre, you will be given some information to read. This will explain the procedure and help ensure you are suitable to give blood.

You will then need to fill in a confidential donor health check form. You will be asked a number of questions about your health and lifestyle. It is important that these questions are answered honestly and accurately to ensure the blood you donate is safe to use.

Read more about who can give blood.

Anaemia check

Once the donor health check form has been completed, a droplet of blood will be taken from your finger tip to check how much haemoglobin it contains.

Haemoglobin is a substance in red blood cells that helps to carry oxygen around the body. Anaemia happens when you do not have enough red blood cells or when the blood cells do not contain enough haemoglobin. The most common type of anaemia is known as iron deficiency anaemia.

Symptoms of anaemia can include:

  • tiredness
  • lethargy
  • shortness of breath
  • palpitations (irregular heartbeat)

If your haemoglobin level is low, giving blood could make you anaemic. If this is the case, you may need to visit your GP before you can give blood.

Read more about iron deficiency anaemia.

Donating blood

Once you have passed all necessary health checks, you will be able to donate blood. It usually takes 5 to 10 minutes for your blood donation to be collected.

The donation procedure will usually involve a cuff being placed around your arm. The cuff is inflated to help make the veins in your arm easier to access.

Your arm will be cleaned and a sterile needle inserted into a vein that is held in place with tape.

You should barely feel the needle. The needle is used only once and is discarded after your donation.

During most blood donations, approximately 470ml (just under one pint) of blood is taken. This amount is only around 10% of an adult’s blood supply and your body will be able to replace it very quickly.

As long as you are well hydrated after your blood donation, your body will make up the fluid part of the blood within a few hours. It will take just a few weeks for your body to fully replace all of the blood cells.

Virtual donation session 

You can find out what happens at a blood donor session using the virtual session provided NHS Blood and Transplant. This takes you through a blood donor session step by step.

After donating

After donating blood, you will need to rest for a short while. You will be offered refreshments to stop you feeling faint or dizzy. The whole process of donating blood should not take longer than an hour.

You will usually be advised to keep the pressure bandage on your arm for about 30 minutes and the plaster dressing on for six hours. Avoid using this arm to carry anything very heavy.

If you smoke, it is recommended that you avoid smoking for two hours after giving blood because smoking could make you feel faint and dizzy.

Donating blood is very safe, although you may experience some mild after effects, such as:

  • bruising at the site where the blood was taken (which affects around one in four people)
  • a sore arm (which affects around one in 10 people)
  • dizziness and fainting (which affects around one in 15 people)

More serious after effects that require medical treatment are rare, occurring in less than one in every 3,500 cases.

If you become unwell within two weeks of your donation, call the NHS Blood and Transplant helpline on 0300 123 23 23. This is very important, as it may mean you had an infection when you donated blood and your donation could put the person who receives your blood at risk. You should also call this number if you keep feeling faint after your donation.

If you are concerned about your symptoms, you can call NHS 111 for further advice.

Who can donate blood?

Most people between the ages of 17 and 66 who weigh over 50kg (7st 12lb) and have a good level of general health will be able to donate blood.

If you are over 70, you need to have given blood in the last two years to continue donating.

Your blood volume may need to be estimated first if you are a women and you:

  • are under 20 years old
  • weigh under 65kg (10st 3lb)
  • are under 168cm (5′ 6″) in height

It is usually recommended that women leave 16 weeks (4 months) and men 12 weeks (3 months) between donations.

People who cannot donate blood

Before donating blood, you will be asked to fill out a confidential donor health check form. This makes sure that your blood is suitable for donation.

Not everyone can donate blood and the donor health check form ensures that people receiving the blood are not exposed to harmful viruses or infections. It’s also to avoid putting you at risk if there’s a reason why giving blood might harm you.

If you are not sure whether you are able to give blood, call NHS Blood and Transplant on 0300 123 23 23 for advice.

You may not be able to donate blood if:

  • you have had a serious illness or major surgery in the past
  • you have had complicated dental work (it is safe to donate blood 24 hours after having a filling or seven days after a simple extraction)
  • you have recently come into contact with an infectious disease
  • you have had certain immunisations within the last four weeks
  • you are currently on a hospital waiting list, or waiting to have tests

You should not give blood if:

  • you have a chesty cough, sore throat or an active cold sore
  • you are taking antibiotics or have finished a course of antibiotics in the last seven days
  • you are pregnant or have given birth in the last six months
  • you have had hepatitis A or jaundice in the last 12 months
  • you have had a tattoo, semi-permanent make up or any sort of body piercing in the last four months
  • a member of your immediate family has had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) – a rare condition that affects the nervous system and causes brain damage
  • you have had acupuncture in the last four months, unless this was done within the NHS or by a qualified healthcare professional registered with a statutory body
  • you have received human pituitary extract (a substance used in some growth hormone and fertility treatments before 1985)
  • you have received blood during the course of a medical treatment or procedure since 1980

You should not donate blood for 12 months after having sex with:

  • a commercial sex worker 
  • someone who has injected drugs
  • someone who has haemophilia (a condition that stops your blood from clotting normally) or another type of blood disorder that required clotting factor treatment
  • someone who has been sexually active in parts of the world where HIV and AIDS are common – such as sub-Saharan Africa
  • a man who has had oral or anal sex with another man (if you are female)
  • a man (if you are male)  with or without a condom

You should never donate blood if you have ever:

  • had HIV
  • had hepatitis C
  • had syphilis
  • had human t-lymphotropic virus (HTLV)
  • injected yourself with drugs
  • worked as a commercial sex worker

How is blood donation used

Blood donations save lives every day. They are used in a wide variety of different situations and to treat a large number of different illnesses and conditions.

Screening

After your blood has been collected for donation, it is sent for testing in a laboratory. Here, it is screened for viruses and infections, such as HIV and hepatitis.

If the blood passes this screening, it will usually be separated into different components. This means your blood donation can be used to help several different patients.

Once the blood has been separated, it is distributed to hospitals all over the country. It is usually then stored in a blood bank until needed.

When the blood is needed, a blood transfusion is used to give it to a recipient.

Different components

The different components that blood donations are split into are outlined below.

Red blood cells

Red blood cells are the cells that carry oxygen around the body in a substance known as haemoglobin.

Red blood cells are often used to treat types of anaemia that do not always respond to other forms of treatment, such as medication. For example, sickle cell anaemia (a genetic condition that stops red blood cells from carrying enough oxygen) is sometimes treated using red blood cells.

Red blood cells are also used to replace blood lost as a result of an accident, surgery or during childbirth. In some cases, these cells are used before operations and surgical procedures. For example, you may need preoperative red blood cells if you are severely anaemic or have severe burns.

Platelets

Platelets are the cells in your blood that help it to clot. They are often used to treat bleeding caused by bone marrow failure. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside your bones that helps to produce new blood cells. When the bone marrow is not able to produce enough cells, it is known as bone marrow failure.

Platelets are also used to treat bleeding caused by leukaemia (a form of cancer that affects the blood cells).

Read more about platelet donation.

Plasma

Plasma is a yellow-coloured fluid that helps to carry all the different types of blood cells. It is usually frozen.

Frozen plasma is used to help replace blood lost during childbirth or heart surgery.

Read more about plasma products.

Terminal illness

As well as saving lives, blood donations can also help improve the quality of life of people with a terminal illness. A blood transfusion may give them the energy to spend time with friends and relatives.

Cord blood donation

Cord blood is the blood that remains in the placenta and umbilical cord after a baby is born. It can be used to treat many life-threatening conditions.

For example, conditions such as leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow cells) and problems with the immune system (the body’s defence system) can be treated with a cord blood transplant.

After a baby is born, the placenta and umbilical cord are usually thrown away. However, as this is a rich source of stem cells, the NHS Cord Blood Bank was set up in 1996 to collect, process, store and supply cord blood for transplants.

Once the cord blood has been processed and frozen, it can be stored until a patient with a matching tissue type needs a stem cell transplant. Research has shown that units can be stored for up to 20 years. 

Mothers must give their consent for the cord blood and any part of the placenta or cord itself to be collected. Without consent, the placenta and cord blood will be thrown away. When giving consent for the donation, the mother gives up all future rights to the donation. You can register your interest in donating your cord blood on the NHS Cord Blood Bank website.

Cord blood can usually only be collected in hospitals where there are specially trained staff. Currently, these are:

  • Barnet General Hospital
  • Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow
  • Luton and Dunstable Hospital
  • Watford General Hospital
  • St George’s Hospital, London
  • University College Hospital, London

This ensures that cord blood is handled correctly and stored in the NHS Cord Blood Bank for doctors to use for their patients.

In special cases, cord blood is also collected under the NHS when it is needed for an older child in the same family. These collections are arranged by NHS Blood and Transplant, and attempts are made to make the donation as convenient as possible. Preferably, the donation will be made at the nearest hospital with birthing facilities.

Some private companies also make cord blood collections for individual families for possible future use. However, the NHS does not support this type of collection, as the chances of using the cord blood in the future are extremely low.

Read more information about donating your cord blood on the NHS Cord Blood Bank website.

Platelet donation

A platelet donation involves using special equipment to separate platelet cells from donated blood.

Platelet cells are very useful for treating a range of conditions and situations, including:

  • leukaemia (bone marrow cancer)
  • excessive blood loss
  • people who have just received a bone marrow transplant

The advantage of platelet donations is that a small amount can be used to treat several people. One donation is often enough to treat up to three adults, or 12 children.

The disadvantage is that donated platelets can only be stored safely for seven days. This means there is a constant demand for new donors.

Not everyone who can donate blood is able to donate platelets, because you need a higher-than-average platelet rate in your blood for the donation to be successful. Your platelet rate will be tested before the donation goes ahead.

Do not be alarmed if testing shows you have an average platelet rate and are unable to donate platelets. This is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.

The donation procedure is similar to regular blood donation, except it takes slightly longer (about 90 minutes).

The rules for who cannot donate are similar to those for donating blood. However, you also cannot donate platelets if:

Read more about who can make a blood donation.

Due to the specialised equipment needed to separate platelets from the blood, a donation can only be made at specialised platelet donation centres.

There are currently 24 donation centres in England, all located in larger towns and cities. A list of donation centres can be found on the NHS Blood and Transplant website.

Also, see the NHS Blood and Transplant website for more information about the platelet donation procedure, or call 0300 123 23 23 to find out more.

‘I was losing blood faster than it could be transfused’

Motor sport fanatic Mike Austin was riding to work on his much-loved motorbike when he collided with a car.

“The impact of the crash trapped my leg between my bike and the car,” says Mike. “My body was slumped over and I knew my leg was in a bad way, but I didn’t feel any pain.”

An ambulance and paramedics arrived. They spent more than 45 minutes trying to stabilise Mike before he could be taken to hospital. The crash almost destroyed Mike’s leg. The skin and muscle had been torn off it, the bones were shattered and his femoral artery badly damaged.

“The paramedics chatted to me at the side of the road for what seemed like five minutes, then took me to hospital. As soon as I arrived at A&E, blood was pumped into each arm and another bag was attached to my neck. I was losing blood faster than it could be transfused. I was still conscious, but the doctors could not find a pulse and my chances of survival were becoming slim.”

Mike was taken to theatre, where surgeons tried to save his leg. During the operation, the entire volume of his blood had to be replaced four times. Two days later, doctors told Mike his leg would have to be amputated.

“By the time I was told, the pain had become so bad that I was glad it was going to be done. Blood was clotting in my leg, which was poisoning the rest of my body. I really thought I might not make it to the operating table. I felt like I was drifting away.

“When I woke up from my operation I could still barely move, but there was a major improvement in my condition.”

After months of operations involving a total of 33 units of blood products, Mike is feeling positive about the future and is hoping to ride again.

“I’m still working hard with my physiotherapist and hope to be fitted with a flexible knee limb, although this is some way off at the moment.

“I’m glad to be alive and appreciate each and every day. Without blood donors, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”

‘I always tell myself that there are people who are worse off’

Nisa Karia has needed blood transfusions for most of her life. She has received more than 1,300 units of blood so far.

Nisa was diagnosed with thalassaemia major when she was five years old. This rare blood disorder means she cannot produce normal haemoglobin for her red blood cells, so she relies on donated blood to survive.

“Growing up needing transfusions was hard for me, but really it was just part of life. I always tell myself there are plenty of people out there who are worse off,” she says.

Nisa has received 1,300 units of blood so far, and needs blood transfusions every three weeks. But she hasn’t let her condition stop her from realising her dream of working in London’s fashion industry, after graduating from Leeds University.

“Thanks to wonderful people who give blood, I lead a full and active life, and am looking forward to getting married next year.”

‘I have a rare blood type, so it’s important that I give blood’

Rudolph Isaacs has donated 41 pints of blood in 17 years. He explains why giving blood is important and how it is an easy way to help others.