Fact or fiction?

Lestat, Dracula, Angel, Spike: When you hear “vampire,” you probably think of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or any one of Anne Rice’s novels. But vampires aren’t just a matter of lore or drugstore fiction. Some people do drink human blood.

Sanguinarians, or “real vampires,” crave blood as a life force. They shouldn’t be confused with lifestyle vampires — people interested in the culture, but who have no need to “feed.”

Curious for a taste? Then read on to learn more about real-life vampirism.

Clinical vampirism is a rare but documented disorder defined by a compulsion to drink blood. It’s also known as Renfield’s syndrome, which is named after a character from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” People who feed on blood — whether human or animal — do so out of what’s believed to be a biological need, in order to maintain health and vitality.

Although clinical vampirism is a real disorder, there’s no way to know if it’s the cause of sanguinarians’ reported symptoms or reason for drinking blood. Studies on clinical vampirism are thin. Clinical information about sanguinarians is even more sparse.

Some sanguinarians acknowledge that the desire may be psychosomatic. But without research, there’s no real way to know.

Although there’s talk of drinking human blood to treat conditions where transfusions are used (think bleeding disorders or kidney disease), there isn’t any clinical evidence to support this.

Researchers do know that blood transfusions are processed differently than blood that’s ingested.

With a transfusion, the donor blood is transferred to your vein directly through an intravenous (IV) line.

Drinking blood, on the other hand, is processed by the body the same as water: into the stomach, to the small intestine, then into the bloodstream. But unlike, say, vampire bats, human bodies don’t have the right mechanisms needed to digest blood. Swallowing copious amounts of blood could hurt your stomach and may cause vomiting.

That hasn’t stopped people from taking this approach to treatment, though.

Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) is a rare disorder that causes the skin to become incredibly sensitive to sunlight. Nowadays, doctors advise people who have EPP to avoid sun exposure. Regular blood transfusions are also used to help ease symptoms.

Some speculate that premodern humans who drank animal blood and only went out at night — fueling vampire folklore — may have done so to treat EPP.

It may be safe to drink blood in small amounts, assuming the blood is disease-free. But drinking more than, say, a couple of teaspoons puts you in the danger zone.

Why? Healthy human blood is rich in iron. Our bodies have a hard time getting rid of excess iron. If you drink more than what you might consume when eating a raw steak, you’re at risk for iron overload. This condition is called hemochromatosis.

Hemochromatosis may be genetic or triggered by other underlying conditions. In this case, it can occur if your body absorbs too much iron from the blood you drink.

Reaching this level of toxicity can increase your risk of developing other life-threatening disorders, including heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes. That’s because the excess iron is stored in your liver, heart, and pancreas, leading to all kinds of health problems.

Studies have shown that using your own blood for platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP) may help with healing wounds and certain sports injuries. But PRP treatment is administered through injections. Drinking blood won’t have the same therapeutic effect.

Consuming more than a few drops — like from a busted lip — may actually make you nauseous and result in vomiting.

If you do go on to ingest a significant amount, hemochromatosis is possible.

Animal blood is high in nutritional value. It can help fortify your diet with iron and other nutrients.

Drinking animal blood is generally safe in small quantities. Chowing down on a rare steak or a blood sausage link usually won’t have any ill effects.

But ingesting animal blood in large quantities could be dangerous, especially if the blood wasn’t collected in a hygienic way. Animal blood is prone to bacterial growth, so ingesting large amounts could increase your risk of infection and other illness.

Hemochromatosis is also possible.

Consent is key to vampirism. But having a consenting blood donor doesn’t mean that the practice is legal.

Depending on where you live, you can be criminally punished for ingesting human or animal blood. Louisiana, for example, has a law on the books that prohibits “ritualistic acts.” The state defines these as any practice with the intention to drink blood or eat animal waste. Someone found in violation of the law could be imprisoned for up to five years or fined up to $5,000 — or both.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that animal sacrifices for religious purposes — which may include drinking the blood — are constitutional under the First Amendment’s religious liberty clause. But that doesn’t mean people who practice ritualistic animal sacrifice are safe from state animal cruelty laws.

If you practice clinical vampirism, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Always obtain consent from your donor, along with their health records proving they don’t have any disease. Routine screening for sexually transmitted infections is key to making sure everyone is healthy and safe.
  • You may want to live out your Lestat fantasy, but don’t literally take a bite out of yourself or your donor. Biting isn’t safe or hygienic.
  • Anything that you use to lacerate the skin should be sterilized using boiling water.
  • You should also consider the depth and location of the laceration. You don’t want to risk hitting a major vein or artery, which could be life-threatening.
  • Your mouth must be clean if you plan to drink directly from the skin. This means a thorough brushing, flossing, and mouthwash rinse. If you don’t do this, you’re more likely to spread bacteria and other pathogens between your mouth and the wound.
  • Afterward, wash the laceration with antibacterial soap and warm water. Apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the area with a bandage. Repeat daily until it’s healed.
  • Keep your doctor informed about your vampirism practice so that they can give you regular preventive lab work and keep an eye out for any changes.

Drinking human blood isn’t something that should be done lightly, as it can pose serious health risks. You should learn the laws and potential legal ramifications in your area, as well as find a healthcare provider you can trust. Your doctor should ensure you’re getting regular preventive lab work done and monitor you for any changes.