Blood: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

But donations always lag behind the need, experts say

SUNDAY, March 11, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Blood donations typically sag during the early part of each year, forcing hospitals to scramble to shore up supplies. In some cases, that even means delaying surgery for some.

The slowdown begins with the holiday season, and can take several months to reverse itself.

"It's critical year-round for folks to give blood, but during the holiday season, we see a definite drop in appointments," said Sybil Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. "But hospitals don't take a vacation. The need for blood never takes a holiday."

Jennifer Garfinkel, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Blood Banks, added: "We're encouraging people to make life-saving a habit. One pint of blood can save up to three lives."

About 5 million Americans need blood transfusions each year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some need blood during surgery, while others depend on it to replace blood lost during an accident or because they have a disease that requires treatment using blood components.

And doctors haven't come up yet with an artificial substitute for human blood. So, physicians need access to the real thing to save lives, and it can only come from donors.

Donors contributed more than 15 million units of whole blood and red cells in 2001, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the National Blood Data Resource Center.

That same year, hospitals in the United States transfused nearly 14 million units of whole blood and red blood cells to 4.9 million patients -- an average of 38,000 units of blood needed on any given day.

But though the demand for blood is high and half of all Americans are eligible to donate, only about 5 percent of those eligible to give blood do so, the Mayo Clinic says. At the same time, the number of transfusions increases by nine percent every year.

Donated blood is processed into three key components: red blood cells, platelets and plasma. Those components can be used to treat a host of injuries and diseases.

Red blood cells are used to treat trauma or surgical patients and can relieve the effects of anemia. Plasma, the liquid part of blood, is given to patients with clotting problems and is used in burn treatment. Platelets clot the blood when cuts or other open wounds occur and are often used in cancer and transplant patients, according to the American Red Cross.

To make matters worse, blood has a limited shelf life.

Platelets must be used within five days of donation, according to the Red Cross. Red blood cells may be stored under refrigeration for about 45 days.

Frozen red blood cells can last up to 10 years, but it costs too much to freeze more than a small portion of the blood supply. Plasma is generally frozen and must be used within one year, according to the Red Cross.

If you're going to donate blood, the American Red Cross suggests that before you go in, you should:

  • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Have a good breakfast or lunch.
  • Drink extra fluids to replace the liquid you will donate, while avoiding diuretics like tea, coffee and caffeinated beverages.
  • Eat iron-rich foods like red meat, fish, poultry or liver. Beans, iron-fortified cereals, raisins and prunes also help.
  • Avoid fatty foods, as tests for infectious diseases done on all donated blood can be affected by lipids. When testing can't be performed, your blood might have to be discarded.
  • The day of the donation, wear clothing with sleeves that can be raised above the elbow. Afterward, rehydrate by drinking plenty of fluids and avoid strenuous physical activity for about five hours.

More information

To learn more about donating blood, visit the American Association of Blood Banks.

SOURCES: Sybil Miller, spokeswoman, American Red Cross; Jennifer Garfinkel, spokeswoman, American Association of Blood Banks
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