Saving a life can be as simple as donating blood. It’s an easy, selfless, and mostly painless way to help your community or the victims of a disaster somewhere far from home.
Being a blood donor can be helpful to you, too. According to the Mental Health Foundation, by helping others, donating blood can benefit both your physical and emotional health.
One question that often comes up is, how often can you donate blood? Can you give blood if you’re not feeling well or if you’re on certain medications? Read on to get answers to those questions and more.
There are actually four types of blood donations, and each one has its own rules for donors.
The types of donations are:
- whole blood, which is the most common type of blood donation
- red blood cells, also called a double red cell donation
Whole blood is the easiest and most versatile donation. Whole blood contains red cells, white cells, and platelets all suspended in a liquid called plasma. According to the American Red Cross, most people can donate whole blood every 56 days.
To donate red blood cells — the key blood component used in blood product transfusions during surgeries — most people must wait 112 days in between donations. This type of blood donation can’t be done more than three times a year.
Male donors under age 18 can donate red blood cells only twice a year.
Platelets are cells that help form blood clots and control bleeding. People can usually donate platelets once every 7 days, up to 24 times a year.
Plasma-only donations can typically be done once every 28 days, up to 13 times a year.
Certain medications may make you ineligible to donate, either permanently or in the short term. For example, if you’re currently taking antibiotics, you can’t donate blood. Once you’re done with the course of antibiotics, you may be eligible to donate.
The following list of medications may make you ineligible to donate blood, depending on how recently you took them. This is only a partial list of medications that may affect your donation eligibility:
- blood thinners, including antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs
- antibiotics to treat an acute active infection
- acne treatments, such as isotretinoin (Accutane)
- hair loss and benign prostatic hypertrophy medications, such as finasteride (Propecia, Proscar)
- basal cell carcinoma skin cancer medications, such as vismodegib (Erivedge) and sonidegib (Odomzo)
- oral psoriasis medication, such as acitretin (Soriatane)
- rheumatoid arthritis medication, such as leflunomide (Arava)
When you register for a blood donation, be sure to discuss any medications you may have taken in the past few days, weeks, or months.
According to the American Red Cross, there are some criteria with regard to who can donate blood.
- In most states, you must be at least 17 years old to donate platelets or plasma and at least 16 years old to donate whole blood. Younger donors may be eligible in certain states if they’ve a signed parental consent form. There’s no upper age limit.
- For the above types of donations, you must weigh at least 110 pounds.
- You must be feeling well, with no cold or flu symptoms.
- You must be free of any open cuts or wounds.
Red blood cell donors usually have different criteria.
- Male donors must be at least 17 years old; no shorter than 5 feet, 1 inch tall; and weigh at least 130 pounds.
- Female donors must be at least 19 years old; no shorter than 5 feet, 5 inches tall; and weigh at least 150 pounds.
Females tend to have lower blood volume levels than males, which accounts for the gender-based differences in donation guidelines.
There are certain criteria that may make you ineligible to donate blood, even if you meet the age, height, and weight requirements. In some cases, though, you may be eligible to donate at a later date.
You may not be able to donate blood if any of the following apply to you:
- Cold or flu symptoms. You must be feeling well and in good health to donate.
- Tattoos or piercings that are less than a year old. If you have an older tattoo or piercing and are in good health, you may be able to donate. The concern is the possible infection by needles or metal contacting your blood.
- Pregnancy. You must wait 6 weeks after giving birth to donate blood. This includes a miscarriage or abortion.
- Travel to countries with high malaria risks. Though travel abroad doesn’t automatically make you ineligible, there are some restrictions that you should discuss with your blood donation center.
- Viral hepatitis, HIV, or other STDs. You may not donate if you’ve tested positive for HIV, been diagnosed with hepatitis B or C, or been treated for syphilis or gonorrhea in the past year.
- Sex and drug use. You may not donate if you’ve injected drugs not prescribed by a doctor or if you’ve engaged in sex for money or drugs.
Donating blood is a fairly simple and safe procedure, but there are a few steps you can take to help reduce the risk of any complications.
It’s easy to feel dehydrated after donating, so drink plenty of water or other fluids (not alcohol) before and after your blood donation.
Eating foods rich in iron and vitamin C before you donate will help make up for the drop in iron levels that can happen with a blood donation.
Vitamin C can help your body absorb plant-based iron from foods such as:
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
- leafy greens, like spinach, broccoli, and collards
- tofu and soybeans
Meat, poultry, fish and eggs are also high in iron.
Good sources of vitamin C include:
- most citrus fruits
- most types of berries
- dark, leafy green vegetables
It only takes about 10 minutes to donate a pint of whole blood — the standard donation. However, when you factor in the registration and screening, as well as the recovery time, the entire procedure can take about 45 to 60 minutes.
At the blood donation center, you’ll need to show a form of ID. Then, you’ll need to fill out a questionnaire with your personal information. This questionnaire will also want to know about your:
- medical and health history
- travel to foreign countries
- sexual activity
- any drug use
You’ll be given some information about donating blood and will have the opportunity to talk with someone at the center about your donation eligibility and what to expect.
Before the actual donation starts, a part of your arm, where the blood will be drawn from, will be cleaned and sterilized. A new sterile needle will then be inserted into a vein in your arm, and blood will start to flow into a collection pouch.
While your blood is being drawn, you can relax. Some blood centers show movies or have a television playing to keep you distracted.
Once your blood has been drawn, a small bandage and dressing will be placed on your arm. You’ll rest for about 15 minutes and be given a light snack or something to drink, and you’ll then be free to go.
Donating red blood cells, plasma, or platelets can take 90 minutes to 3 hours.
During this process, since only one component is being removed from the blood for donation, the other components will have to be returned back into your bloodstream after being separated in a machine.
Platelet donations will require a needle to be placed in both arms to accomplish this.
The time it takes to replenish blood from a blood donation can vary from person to person. Your age, height, weight, and overall health all play a role.
According to the American Red Cross, plasma is generally replenished within 24 hours, while red blood cells return to their normal levels within 4 to 6 weeks.
This is why you’re required to wait in between blood donations. The waiting period helps to ensure that your body has enough time to replenish plasma, platelets, and red blood cells before you make another donation.
Donating blood is an easy way to help others and possibly even save lives. Most people in good health, without any risk factors, can donate whole blood every 56 days.
If you’re unsure if you’re eligible to donate blood, speak to your healthcare provider or contact a blood donation center to learn more. Your local blood donation center can also tell you if certain blood types are in high demand.