Learning About Blood Transfusions

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Blood cells in a blood vessel

What is a blood transfusion?

Blood transfusion is a medical treatment to replace the blood or parts of blood that your body has lost. The blood goes through a tube from a bag to an intravenous (I.V.) catheter and into your vein.

You may need a blood transfusion after losing blood from an injury, a major surgery, an illness that causes bleeding, or an illness that destroys blood cells.

Transfusions are also used to give you the parts of blood—such as platelets, plasma, or substances that cause clotting—that your body needs to fight an illness or stop bleeding.

How is a blood transfusion done?

Before you receive a blood transfusion, your blood is tested to find out what your blood type is. Blood or blood parts that are a match with your blood type are ordered by your doctor. Blood is typed as A, B, AB, or O. It is also typed as Rh-positive or Rh-negative.

Your blood is also screened to look for antibodies that might react with the blood that is given to you. The blood you are getting is checked and rechecked to make sure that it's the right type for you.

A sample of your blood is mixed with a sample of the blood you will receive to check for problems. Before actually giving you the transfusion, a doctor and nurses will look at the label on the package of blood and compare it to your hospital ID bracelet and medical records. The transfusion begins only when all agree that this is the correct blood and that you are the correct person to receive it.

To receive the transfusion, you will have an intravenous (I.V.) catheter inserted into a vein. A tube connects the catheter to the bag containing the blood, which is placed higher than your body. The blood then flows slowly into your vein. A doctor or nurse will check you several times during the transfusion to watch for a reaction or other problems.

What are the possible risks?

Blood transfusions have many benefits and are often life-saving. But they also have a few risks. Possible risks include:

  • Your body's reaction to receiving new blood. This may include:
    • Fever.
    • Breathing problems.
    • Allergic reaction, such as hives, swelling, or a new rash.
  • An infection from the blood. This risk is small because of the strict rules placed on handling and storing blood. Getting a viral infection, such as HIV or hepatitis B or C, through blood transfusions has become very rare. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces strict guidelines on the collection, testing, storage, and use of blood.
  • Getting the wrong blood type by accident. Severe reactions, which can be life-threatening, are very rare.
  • An infection at the transfusion site, such as redness, swelling, pain, bleeding, or pus.

How can you care for yourself at home?

To prevent infection at the transfusion site

  • Wash the area daily with warm, soapy water, and pat it dry. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, which can slow healing. You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it weeps or rubs against clothing. Change the bandage every day.
  • Keep the area clean and dry.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • You are dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you may faint.
  • You have a fever or chills.
  • You have chest pain, back pain, or pain in the flank, which is just below the rib cage and above the waist on either side of the back.
  • You have blood in your urine.
  • You have abnormal bleeding, such as:
    • Nosebleeds.
    • New bleeding or oozing at an intravenous (I.V.) or blood draw site.
  • You have little to no urine when you try to urinate.
  • You have belly pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • You have signs of an allergic reaction, such as hives, swelling, or a new rash.
  • You have signs of an infection at the transfusion site, such as redness, swelling, pain, bleeding, or pus.
  • You feel weaker or more tired than usual.
  • You have a yellow tint (jaundice) to your skin or the whites of your eyes.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter V588 in the search box to learn more about "Learning About Blood Transfusions".

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.