The Medical Minute: Give blood, give life

January 19, 2005

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 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 and younger generations tend to donate less often than 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. People are living longer and are more likely to need blood as they age.

Many hospitals including Penn State Hershey Medical Center are testing blood substitutes, but that product will not be ready for general use for several years. Even when blood substitutes becomes available, there still will be a need for real blood to provide blood components other than the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin provided by blood substitute.

Blood donors 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 potential blood donors and most common medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, are acceptable for donating. Blood may be donated even if the donor is 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. Potential donors who have had a tattoo or an ear or other body piercing other than by a doctor are asked to defer for one year.

Individuals normally have between 10 and 12 pints of blood. When someone donates a pint, it 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. The most common blood types, O positive and A positive, are particularly important because more people have the common blood 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 potential donors can visit on the Web. Blood drives sponsored by church groups and employers often are listed in the local newspapers.

It is very easy to be a blood donor. First a brief health questionnaire must be completed, then blood pressure is measured and a drop of blood is taken from the donor's finger to check for anemia. Potential donors who have had anemia in the past may be able to donate now. Breakfast or lunch should be eaten prior to donating and donors should drink plenty of liquid.

A trained technician using new, sterile equipment, collects blood. 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 the donor lies comfortably on a reclining chair. During that time the donor is offered snacks and beverages. Afterwards the donor should drink extra fluids and eat normally. The donor's body quickly replenishes the donated amount -- the fluid in a few hours and the cells in a few weeks.

Individuals cannot catch any diseases from blood donation. It is a very safe activity that is lifesaving for the recipients of donated blood. Blood has a limited storage time so it must be replenished constantly. Now is the best time to begin. Donors may donate every eight weeks. The need is always great, but it is highest at this time of year.

More information may be found at

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009