What is a blood transfusion?
A blood transfusion is a process that involves taking blood from one person (the donor) and giving it to someone else.
You may need a blood transfusion for a number of reasons, including:
- to replace blood lost during major surgery, childbirth or a severe accident
- to treat anaemia that has failed to respond to other treatments; anaemia is a condition where a person has low levels of red blood cells
- to treat inherited blood disorders, such as thalassaemia or sickle cell anaemia
You have the right to refuse a blood transfusion, but you need to fully understand the consequences of this before doing so. Some medical treatments or operations can't be safely carried out without a blood transfusion being given.
Read more about why a blood transfusion might be necessary.
Blood is usually given through a plastic tube inserted into a vein in your arm. It can take between 30 minutes and four hours, depending on how much blood is needed.
Read more about how blood transfusion works.
In the UK and other Western countries, there are rigorous regulations regarding blood donations and blood transfusions. The aim of the regulations is to minimise the risk of a person being given blood contaminated with a virus, such as hepatitis C, or receiving blood from a blood group that's unsuitable for them.
Compared to other everyday risks, the likelihood of getting an infection from a blood transfusion is very low. All blood donors are unpaid volunteers. They're carefully selected and tested to make sure the blood they donate is as safe as possible.
You must be correctly identified to make sure you get the right blood transfusion. Wearing an identification band with your correct details is essential. You will be asked to state your full name and date of birth, and the details on your identification band will be checked before each bag of blood is given.
What does blood do?
When a donor gives blood, special equipment is used to separate the donation into different blood components, including:
- red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body and are used to treat anaemia
- platelets – these help to stop the bleeding when a person is cut or injured; platelet transfusions can be used to prevent excessive bleeding in certain groups of people, such as those who are having chemotherapy treatment (powerful medication to treat cancers)
- plasma – a liquid that makes up most of the volume of blood; plasma contains many nutrients needed by the body’s cells, as well as proteins that help the blood to clot if a patient is bleeding
- white blood cells, which are used to fight infection
Read more information about blood donation.
Risks of blood transfusion
Blood transfusions are a fairly common procedure. The risk of serious side effects is low as your blood is tested against the donor blood to make sure it is compatible.
Having an allergic reaction to the donated blood is an uncommon complication of a blood transfusion.
An allergic reaction is caused by the body’s immune system reacting to proteins or other substances in the donated blood. The symptoms of the reaction are usually mild and occur during or shortly after the transfusion.
Common symptoms include:
- raised, red, itchy skin rash (urticaria)
- swelling of hands, arms, feet, ankles and legs (oedema)
Less common symptoms include:
- high temperature (fever) of or above 38ºC (100.4ºF)
These types of reactions can usually be successfully managed by slowing down or stopping the transfusion and treating the symptoms with antihistamines (medication for allergies) and, in some cases, paracetamol.
Anaphylaxis is a more serious and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to antibodies or other substances in the blood. In 2011, there were 33 suspected cases of anaphylaxis associated with blood transfusions in the UK.
The symptoms of anaphylaxis may occur as soon as the blood transfusion begins. They include:
- abdominal cramps
- shortness of breath
Anaphylaxis is usually treated with an injection of a type of medication called adrenaline.
Occasionally, too much blood is transfused into the body in too short a time for the body to properly cope with it. This is known as fluid overload.
The excess fluid can result in the heart being unable to pump enough blood around the body (heart failure). The lungs also become filled with fluid, which can result in shortness of breath. Older patients and those with serious health conditions, such as heart disease, are at greater risk of fluid overload.
There were 71 cases of fluid overload in the UK during 2011.
An uncommon but very serious risk associated with blood transfusions is transfusion-related acute lung injury (TRALI).
TRALI is a poorly understood condition in which a person’s lungs suddenly become very inflamed within six hours of the transfusion. The high levels of inflammation cause the lungs to become starved of oxygen. In some cases, this can be fatal.
Most experts believe that some type of abnormal immune response causes the inflammation associated with TRALI.
Treatment for TRALI requires using a ventilator to provide the body with oxygen until the inflammation of the lungs subsides.
Acute haemolytic transfusion reaction
An acute haemolytic transfusion reaction (AHTR) is when the immune system reacts to the donated blood and begins attacking the blood cells.
One cause of AHTR is when a person is mistakenly given the wrong blood type. However, AHTR can occasionally occur when all the procedures associated with a blood transfusion have been correctly followed.
During AHTR, the immune system attacks the donated blood cells, triggering a range of symptoms that usually develop very quickly after the transfusion and rapidly get worse.
Symptoms of AHTR include:
- shortness of breath
- high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
- facial flushing
People with AHTR may go into shock (a seriously reduced blood flow), which can cause the following symptoms:
- cold, clammy skin
- low blood pressure
A person with AHTR may develop acute (sudden) kidney failure. AHTR is a medical emergency that usually requires admission to an intensive care unit (ICU) where medication and fluids are administered to improve blood flow.
Bacterially contaminated blood
Despite every effort being made to keep donated blood sterile (germ-free), bacteria can occasionally develop in donated blood. Donations of platelets are particularly vulnerable to contamination because they need to be stored at room temperature.
If a person receives a donation of contaminated blood, they may develop symptoms of blood poisoning (sepsis), including:
- high temperature
- a fast heartbeat
- fast breathing
- cold, clammy skin
- changes in mental states, such as confusion
Cases of sepsis usually need to be treated with injections of antibiotics. See treating sepsis for more information.
Viral contaminated blood
It is extremely rare for someone to develop a viral infection from a blood transfusion as the blood services use strict testing processes. For example, it is estimated that:
- the risk of getting hepatitis B is about 1 in 1.3 million
- the risk of getting hepatitis C is about 1 in 28 million
- the risk of getting HIV is about 1 in 6.5 million
There hasn't been a recorded case of someone developing a viral infection from a blood transfusion since 2005.
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD)
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare and fatal condition that causes worsening brain damage over time.
A form of this condition called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is usually caused by eating meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or 'mad cow disease'), can be passed on through a blood transfusion. However, this is extremely rare.
In the UK, about 2.5 million units of blood components are transfused each year and to date there have only been four cases of vCJD linked to transfusions.
As a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of transmitting vCJD, people who have received a blood transfusion since 1980 are not currently able to give blood.
How is a blood transfusion performed?
If you're going to receive a blood transfusion as part of a planned course of treatment, the doctor in charge of your care will usually obtain your informed consent for the procedure.
Obtaining consent for a blood transfusion isn't legally required, although most healthcare professionals consider it to be best practice in terms of patient care.
In obtaining consent, your doctor will:
- explain the reasons why a blood transfusion is required and if there are any alternatives
- explain potential risks or complications associated with the transfusion
Once you've understood both these points, you'll be asked to give your permission for the transfusion to go ahead.
There may be circumstances when it's not possible to obtain consent before a transfusion. For example, if someone is unconscious after a major accident.
If you have religious objections to receiving a blood transfusion, you should carry a signed card explaining that you refuse to accept the use of all blood components under any circumstances.
If you're going to have a surgical operation where a blood transfusion may be needed, you can take steps to reduce the chances of this happening. These include:
- eating a healthy, well-balanced diet in the weeks leading up to the operation
- increasing your iron level, which is particularly important if you have anaemia; your doctor, consultant or nurse will be able to advise you further
If you're taking blood-thinning medication, such as aspirin or warfarin, you may be told to stop taking it for several days before having surgery. You must only stop taking medication under the direction of your doctor or consultant.
Why blood transfusion is needed
There are several different types of blood transfusion. Whether or not you need one depends on a number of factors.
- your health
- your medical history
- the type of operation you're having
- the seriousness of your condition
An average-sized adult has about five litres of blood in total. Small amounts of blood loss (up to 1.5 litres) can be replaced with a salt solution, which your body replaces with new red blood cells over the following weeks.
The different types of blood transfusions are described below.
Red blood cell transfusions
The main reason for a red blood cell transfusion is to treat anaemia. Anaemia occurs when the body doesn't have enough red, oxygen-carrying blood cells, which means the body’s tissues and cells aren't getting enough oxygen.
Anaemia can develop as a result of severe blood loss, for example, as a complication during childbirth or as a result of injury or surgery. Anaemia can also be caused by:
- health conditions in which red blood cells are produced at a reduced rate – for example, in anaemia due to lack of iron, vitamin B12 or folate, and some types of cancers, such as acute myeloid leukaemia and lymphoma
- health conditions that disrupt the normal production of red blood cells – such as sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia
- conditions or factors that lead to red blood cells being destroyed – for example, in some types of infections such as malaria, the use of certain medications, toxins such as alcohol or lead poisoning, or as a result of the immune system mistakenly attacking healthy red blood cells
If you're told that you might need a blood transfusion, you should ask why it's necessary and whether there are alternative treatments. You have the right to refuse a blood transfusion, but you need to fully understand the consequences of this before doing so. Some medical treatments or operations can't be safely carried out without the need for a blood transfusion.
A platelet transfusion is used to treat people who have abnormally low levels of platelet cells in their blood. This is known as thrombocytopenia.
If you have thrombocytopenia, you're at risk of excessive bleeding, either through a minor accident, cut or graze, or as a result of surgery or dental work.
Causes of thrombocytopenia that may require treatment with a platelet transfusion include:
- types of cancers, such as leukaemia or lymphoma
- chemotherapy or bone marrow transplantation, which reduces the production of platelets
- chronic liver disease or cirrhosis (scarring of the liver, which has many causes, including alcohol abuse)
- sepsis or severe infection – this can cause abnormal clotting and low platelets
Plasma is the fluid in the blood containing proteins that help the blood to clot. A transfusion of plasma may be needed if there's severe bleeding, such as after surgery, trauma or childbirth. A transfusion may also be needed in conditions (such as liver disease) that affect the production of clotting proteins.
Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell that help fight infection. Granulocyte transfusions aren't commonly used but may be needed if there's a severe infection that's not responding to antibiotics after chemotherapy or bone marrow transplantation.
Surgeons always try to carry out surgery in such a way that it minimises the amount of blood lost. In recent years, this has become easier due to the increasing use of keyhole surgery (laparoscopic surgery), where only small cuts are made in the body.
However, some types of surgical operations and procedures have a higher risk of blood loss, therefore a blood transfusion is more likely to be needed.
It may be possible to use a procedure called intra-operative cell salvage. It collects your blood that's lost during the surgery, and it can be returned back to you. Ask your doctor or nurse if intra-operative cell salvage is appropriate for the type of surgery you may be having.
It's no longer possible to routinely collect your own blood in advance of your surgery.
Nisa, 30, has needed blood transfusions for most of her life, and she's received more than 1,300 units of blood so far.
Nisa was diagnosed with thalassaemia major when she was just five. This rare blood disorder means that she can't produce normal haemoglobin for her red blood cells, so she relies on donated blood to survive.
“Growing up needing transfusions was hard, but it was just part of life. I always tell myself there are plenty of people out there who are worse off,” she says.
Although Nisa needs blood transfusions every three weeks, her blood disorder hasn't stopped her realising her dream of working in London's fashion industry, after graduating from Leeds University.
“Thanks to the wonderful people who give blood, I lead a full and active life. I'm also looking forward to getting married next year.”
Motorsport fanatic, Mike, 34, will never forget the summer of 2006. While on his way to work on his much-loved motorbike, 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 arrived and paramedics spent more than 45 minutes trying to stabilise Mike before he could be taken to hospital. The crash had almost destroyed his leg – the skin and muscle had been torn away, the bones were shattered and his femoral artery had been badly damaged.
“The paramedics chatted to me at the side of the road for what seemed like five minutes before I was on my way 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 couldn't find a pulse. My chances of survival were very 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 him that his leg would have to be amputated.
“By then, 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 looking positively to the future and is hoping to ride motorbikes again.
“I’m still working hard with my physio. I hope to get into a position where I can be fitted with a flexible knee limb, although this is some way off at the moment.
“Before something like this happens it's easy to go through life blinkered, but now I’m glad to be alive and I appreciate every day. Without blood donors, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”
How does blood transfusion work?
Blood services run regular blood donation sessions are often run across the country where members of the public are encouraged to donate blood.
Before making a blood donation, the potential donor is asked about their health, lifestyle and history. This is to make sure the donor is fit and well, and because certain groups of people shouldn't donate blood as they have an increased risk of having a blood-borne infection, such as men who have had sex with other men or injecting drug users.
Read more information about who can donate blood.
After blood has been donated, it's always tested for the following infections:
- hepatitis B
- hepatitis C
- HIV and AIDS
- human T-cell lymphotropic virus (HTLV) – a rare but potentially serious virus, which in some people can cause a type of leukaemia that's usually fatal
How blood is given
A small sample of your blood is usually needed before a blood transfusion to make sure your blood is compatible with the donor blood. Read more about blood groups.
Blood is usually given through a tiny plastic tube called a cannula, this is inserted into a vein in your arm. The cannula is connected to a drip and the blood runs through the drip into your arm.
Depending on the underlying condition and the type of other treatment needed, some patients may have a larger tube, which is known as a central line, inserted into a vein in their chest. Alternatively, a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) may be inserted in the crook of the arm. These lines can also be used for blood transfusions.
During the transfusion
Most people don't feel anything when receiving a blood transfusion. You'll be observed at regular intervals, but if you start to feel unwell during or shortly after your transfusion, you should tell a member of staff immediately.
Some people may develop a temperature, chills or a rash. These reactions are usually mild and easily treated with paracetamol or by slowing down the blood transfusion.
Severe reactions to blood are rare. If they occur, staff carrying out the transfusion are trained to recognise and treat them. If you have any concerns, discuss them with your doctor, nurse or midwife.
Read more information about risks of blood transfusion.