By: Heather Michon |

Quick read:

Blood transfusions are a common procedure performed when the body’s normal process for renewing blood is disrupted for any reason. Side effects like an allergic reaction or infection may occur, with more serious complications taking place if the blood isn’t a good match for the patient.

Full story:

Blood transfusions are one of the most common medical procedures performed in U.S. hospitals today. The National Institutes of Health estimate over 4 million Americans receive transfusions each year.

What is blood?

Blood is the substance that carries oxygen and nutrients to our cells, carries away our metabolic waste, and repels invaders.

A little over half of our blood is made up of a yellowish mixture of water, salts, and proteins called plasma. The remainder is made up of solids, primarily:

  • Red blood cells (RBCs), which carry oxygen to the heart and lungs
  • White blood cells (WBCs), which fights off infection
  • Platelets, which aid in clotting

Why blood transfusions?

Blood is constantly in the process of renewal. Red blood cells live an average of 120 days, with platelets living about a week, and most white blood cells surviving just a day or two. Fresh blood cells originate in our marrow, the spongy center of our bones.

Blood transfusions are needed when this normal process is disrupted, either through trauma, where a wound or injury causes blood to be lost faster than it can be replaced, or from illness or infections.

Depending on the circumstances, your physician might order a blood transfusion of whole blood, or just plasma, platelets, or other blood products. Transfusions are delivered into the body through an intravenous catheter.

What are the blood transfusion risks?

Blood transfusions are generally considered uncomplicated, yet — like all medical procedures — there are risks involved.

Donations are carefully screened for blood-borne viruses like hepatitis and HIV. Infections are very rare. The most common risk is an allergic reaction, such as hives or fever. Some people may also experience mild back or chest pain.

More serious complications may arise when the blood being transfused isn’t a good match for the patient. This may occur when the patient’s body sometimes perceives the donor’s red blood cells as an invader and destroys them. The inflammatory response can lead to organ damage.

What happens when you start a transfusion?

Once everything is set, a nurse or technician will start the transfusion.

  • A final set of checks makes sure the blood provided by the hospital’s blood bank has been cross-checked for your use.
  • The nurse will take baseline readings of your blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature.
  • If it isn’t already set up, an intravenous line will be inserted.
  • The nurse will hook up a bag of normal saline solution, then attach the bag containing the blood products. Both will hang on the IV pole above you. Because blood can clump or clot, it will pass through a filter before it gets to your body.
  • The nurse will set the drip rate for both the blood product and the saline, either by a gravity drip or an electric IV (or infusion) pump.

What are the warning signs?

Most transfusions take 1-4 hours to complete. Once a transfusion starts, the nurse will stay with you and take your vital signs at frequent intervals.

Alert your nurse if you feel:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in your back or chest
  • Unusual itching
  • Fever or chills

Also let them know if you feel any psychological changes. Some patients report feeling a sense of danger or uneasiness. If you develop a reaction, nurses will stop the transfusion and alert your physician and the blood bank.  

What happens when the transfusion is over?

Once the transfusion is complete, assuming you’re not in need of further care, the catheter will be removed from your arm and the insertion site bandaged. You should not experience any pain after the procedure.

Still have questions? Print out our Frequently Asked IV Questions sheet and take it with you.

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