Beginner's Guide to Blood Donation

Find out why you should donate, how to prepare, the dos and don'ts after donating blood, and the many health benefits of this live-saving activity.

Updated on August 30, 2017 8:08 am

Ashley Aucoin

guide to donating blood

Donating blood can be a scary thought. The idea of the needle alone might make you squirm and send shivers down your spine. Before you run for the hills, know that if you can be brave for roughly seven minutes, (yes, that’s all it takes to donate!) you will help save a life. Did you know that you’re eligible to donate blood if you are over 17 years old, in good health, and weigh at least 110 pounds?

Why donate?

What happens after your blood is taken? Your blood is sent to labs for rigorous testing, where approximately 12 tests are performed. After testing and once your blood is declared “safe” for transfusion, it is then transferred to hospitals and clinics in need. Depending on your blood type, your donation could be used in a variety of situations. People who have the blood type O-negative are universal donors, and their red blood cells can be transfused into anyone regardless of the recipient’s blood type. When doctors are in emergency situations and don’t have the time or capability to check the patient’s blood type, they will use O-negative blood. This means O-negative blood is always in high demand.

Emergency situations are just some of the many instances blood transfusions are performed. Anemic patients often receive transfusions to increase their iron levels, while some people with sickle cell disease encounter complications and require a transfusion every month. Patients with long-term illnesses or battling cancer, premature infants, and patients undergoing open-heart surgeries may also be the recipient of your gift.

Blood types and compatibility

How to prepare for a successful blood donation

There are a few things you can do before going to the blood clinic to ensure your donation goes smoothly. To feel your best, be sure to get seven to nine hours of sleep the night before. It is also important that you wear a shirt that allows the blood technician easy access to your arms. I suggest wearing short sleeves, or a loose-fitting shirt that can easily be rolled up. If you are concerned about being cold or have an appointment during a workday, a cardigan or zip-up sweater is a great option.

One of the first things the technicians will do when you check in is prick your finger to check your hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein responsible for giving your blood its red color. To qualify to donate blood, your hemoglobin levels must be at least 12.5 g/dl in women and 13.0 g/dl in men. If your hemoglobin levels are too low, you will be asked to postpone your donation until they increase.

Iron directly affects your body’s ability to produce hemoglobin. If you don’t have a preexisting condition such as anemia, a delicious way to ensure that your hemoglobin levels pass the finger stick test is to indulge in a juicy steak the night before. If you do not eat meat, lentils, beans, dried fruit, tofu, and eggs can also help boost your iron and hemoglobin levels. Try to avoid fatty foods before your appointment, as this can lead to an excess of fat in your blood and interfere with the testing process, rendering your blood unusable.

Being well hydrated is another important component to a successful donation. Try to drink an additional two cups of water the day of your appointment. This will help regulate your blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of you feeling dizzy or fainting. If your blood pressure is below 90/50 or higher than 180/100, you will be asked to reschedule your appointment. If you are concerned about your blood pressure, talk to your doctor prior to the appointment.

What happens to donated blood?

Dos and don’ts after donating blood

Congratulations! You have helped save a life. Now it’s time for your post-donation care. Follow these dos and don’ts for a speedy recovery:

Wait time between appointments

  • Whole Blood: 56 Days
  • Plasma: 7 Days
  • Platelets: 14 Days

What is donated blood used for?

5 health benefits of donating blood

Donating blood helps the recipient, and also offers a variety of health benefits for the donor. Here are some of the ways your body will benefit from your humanitarian efforts:

1. Free health checkup

Before you donate blood, your hemoglobin levels, blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate are all assessed at no cost to you. If there are any abnormalities, you will be made aware of them and can seek medical attention. Furthermore, once your blood has been sent to the lab, they will screen it for infections such as syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B and C. You can opt to be informed if they find anything abnormal during this analysis.

2. Burns calories

Donating one pint of blood can burn up to 650 calories. While this shouldn’t be considered a weight-loss solution, it is a nice bonus for doing a good deed!

3. Decreases risk of cancer

By donating blood, you could be reducing your risk for cancer. Iron has been linked to free-radical damage in the body and is associated with an increased risk of cancer and accelerated aging. When you donate blood, you are removing some of the iron from your system and lowering your risk for liver, lung, colon, and throat cancers.

4. New blood cells

Your body will be stimulated to replenish the blood cells lost during the donation, which helps maintain good health.

5. Healthy heart

Donating blood regularly helps keep your iron levels in check. While we need iron to function, excessive amounts can build up and cause oxidative damage to your cardiovascular system and is associated with an increased risk for colon cancer. Due to menstrual blood loss, women naturally have 50 percent fewer iron stores than men. They also suffer half the amount of heart attacks and heart disease-related deaths. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 43- to 61-year-olds who donated blood every six months had fewer heart attacks and strokes than their non-donor peers. A study that focused on Finnish men in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that men who donated blood once a year reduced their risk of heart attacks by 88 percent compared to those who did not donate.

By rolling up your sleeves and donating blood, you are not only helping save a life but also improving your own health. Grab a friend or family member and make an appointment today. It’s a wonderful feeling being able to give back!

Article originally published in Edited and reposted with permission.

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