What is a blood transfusion?

A blood transfusion is a medical procedure where blood from a donor is injected into your body to replace blood cells or blood products. In many cases, a blood transfusion is an emergency, life-saving procedure that is performed when you lose a large amount of blood due to injury or surgery. It can also be used to increase blood count in anemic patients.

During a blood transfusion, the blood is injected through a narrow tube that is placed in a vein in the arm. Only the parts of the blood that you need are transfused.

What are types of blood transfusions?

Blood can be transfused as whole blood or individual parts. Your doctor will determine the most appropriate transfusion for your case.

Types of blood transfusions include:

Red blood cell transfusion

Red blood cell transfusions are the most common type of transfusion. Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the body’s organs and help rid the body of carbon dioxide. Patients with severe anemia may need a red blood cell transfusion.

Platelets and clotting factor transfusion

Patients who have illnesses that may not allow the body to make enough platelets or clotting factors may need a platelets or clotting factor transfusion. Platelets and clotting factors help stop bleeding.

Plasma transfusion

Patients who are in liver failure or have been severely burned may need a plasma infusion. Plasma, the liquid part of the blood, contains proteins, clotting factors, hormones and other vital substances.

Who is a candidate for a blood transfusion?

A blood transfusion is a common medical procedure — almost five million Americans a year need one. You may receive a blood transfusion if you lose a large amount of blood due to surgery or injury or if you have a bleeding disorder. The transfusion may be needed to replace red blood cells, white blood cells, blood plasma or platelets. Red blood cells are the most commonly transfused blood part.

What are the risks associated with a blood transfusion?

Although a blood transfusion is relatively safe, complications can arise. Complications associated with a blood transfusion include:

  • Allergic reaction — an allergic reaction can lead to hives, itching and fever.
  • Bloodborne infections — transfusion-related infections such as HIV or hepatitis B or C are rare but can occur from tainted donated blood.
  • Acute immune hemolytic reaction — an acute immune hemolytic reaction can occur if your immune system attacks transfused red blood cells when the blood donor type is not a match. When this occurs, the cells release something in the blood that can harm the kidneys.
  • Lung injury — although rare, a blood transfusion can damage the lungs, which can make it hard to breathe. Most patients who suffer lung injuries start having symptoms within six hours, but most recover.
  • Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) — graft-versus-host disease occurs when the transfused white blood cells attack the bone marrow. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop GVHD, and it is typically fatal.
  • Delayed hemolytic reaction  — a delayed hemolytic reaction occurs when your body destroys red blood cells so slowly that the issue can go unnoticed until your red blood cell level is really low. This process can take between one to four weeks and typically occurs in patients who have had a previous transfusion.

What to expect during a blood transfusion?

A blood transfusion is typically performed in a hospital setting or outpatient clinic. The procedure takes approximately one to four hours depending upon how much blood needs to be transfused. During the transfusion, an IV is inserted into a blood vessel where the healthy blood will be injected. Your Mercy Health team will closely monitor you during the transfusion to watch for any adverse reactions.

You may have bruising at the injection site for up to a week. If you start having symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest or back pain, call your doctor right away.

Results from a blood transfusion

Your doctor will monitor you after the transfusion to determine if you are responding to the donor blood as well as to check your blood counts to determine if you need another follow-up transfusion.

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