The Medical Minute: Give blood, give life

January 18, 2006

By John Messmer
Penn State Family & Community Medicine
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Penn State College of Medicine

January is National Blood Donor Volunteer month. The need for new donors increases every year while donations have dropped annually for a combination of reasons. There are stricter rules for donor exclusion to avoid transmission of disease. Younger generations tend to donate less often than our current seniors and the baby boom generation. Not only is the number of donors lower, the use of blood is increasing for more complex surgery and medical treatments. We are living longer and are more likely to need blood as we age. Although 60 percent of Americans are eligible to donate, only 5 percent do.

Many hospitals including Penn State Hershey Medical Center are testing artificial blood, but that product will not be ready for general use for several years. Even when artificial blood becomes available, it just replaces the oxygen carrying part of blood. There will still be a need for real blood to provide other blood components, such as, clotting factors and platelets.

To be a blood donor one should be reasonably healthy, at least 17 years old and weigh at least 110 pounds. There is no upper age limit. Very few medical problems exclude donation and most common medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes are acceptable for donating. People may give blood even if on medication with a few exceptions that include Accutane for acne, Proscar or Avodart for prostate problems, Propecia for hair growth, Tegison for psoriasis or chemotherapy agents which can cause birth defects if given to a pregnant woman. If someone has had a tattoo or an ear or other body piercing other than by a doctor, they are asked to defer for one year.

We normally have between 10 and 12 pints of blood. A donated pint is split into its components to meet the needs of trauma victims, hemophiliacs, cancer patients, burn victims, surgical patients, premature infants and many others. One pint of blood is a gift that literally saves the lives of many people. A common misconception is that rare blood types are more in demand. Actually, people with the most common blood types, O positive and A positive, are needed the most because more people needing blood have those types.

Blood donations are taken year round in hospital blood banks. The Penn State Hershey Medical Center blood donor center is at (717) 531-5063. Local blood banks such as the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank at (800) 771-0059 can provide information about donation sites, or you can visit on the Web. Blood drives sponsored by church groups and employers are often listed in the local paper.

It's really easy to be a blood donor. First, donors complete a brief health questionnaire then have their blood pressure measured and a drop of blood is taken from the finger to check for anemia. It's important to eat before donating and to drink plenty of liquid.

Blood is collected by a trained technician using new, sterile equipment. Sure, a needle is used to get the blood, but most blood donors say it's hardly noticeable. It takes about 15 minutes to collect the blood while lying comfortably on a reclining chair.
Afterwards extra fluids are needed but donors may eat normally. The body quickly replenishes the donated amount -- the fluid in a few hours and the cells in a few weeks.

It's not possible to catch any diseases from blood donation. It is a very safe activity for the donor and lifesaving for the recipients. Blood has a limited storage time so it must constantly be replenished. Now is a good time to become a regular blood donor. Donations are allowed every eight weeks. The need is always great, but it is highest at this time of year.

More information may be found at online.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009