Why Donate?

Why should you donate blood?

There is a massive and ongoing need for blood throughout the country. About 31,000 units of whole blood are needed in the US per day, and a patient will need a blood transfusion every two seconds. These transfusions are used in a number of life-saving procedures, such as trauma treatment, open heart surgery, sickle cell disease treatment, cancer treatment, and organ transplants. Cancer patients use the most blood—leukemia patients, on average, require more than 20 platelet transfusions over a six-month period, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center uses more than 53,000 units of blood per year. There is also no artificial substitute for blood, so hospitals rely solely on donors to provide their life-saving treatments. Unfortunately, however, there simply aren’t enough donors to keep up with this need. Only 37% of the US population is eligible to donate blood, and only 3-4% of the population actually donates. Another issue is that the blood supply constantly needs to be replenished. It’s not just that it’s being used up -- blood has an expiration date. Whole blood has a shelf life of 42 days, and platelets last for even less time, with a shelf life of five days. Plasma can be frozen and lasts for much longer, but even that has to be discarded after a year. This crisis may sound daunting, but each donor has the ability to make a tremendous impact. Even one pint of blood can save up to three lives, and if all eligible donors gave blood three times a year, shortages would be rare. So, if you’re eligible, you can do a lot to mitigate the blood crisis by becoming a repeat donor.

Why does youth donation matter?

Youth donation is crucial. Right now, donors over age 40 account for almost 60% of the blood supply, and those over 50 account for about 45%. By contrast, donors aged 16-22 account for about 20% of the blood supply, and those in their 20s and 30s make up for the smallest proportion, contributing about 10% and 12%, respectively. This means that blood shortages will become a problem as people age out of the donor pool and aren’t replaced with young donors. While there is no national upper age limit to donating blood, older people are more likely to have health problems that make them ineligible, to feel weak after donating, and to need transfusions themselves, and are less likely to want to go out right now because they’re more at risk for COVID-19. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the young generations, especially people in their 20s and 30s, step up to take their place as consistent blood donors and instill a culture of blood donation in the generation after them.

Why should I donate to my local center?

When you think of donating blood, you might also think of donation agencies that have a national reach, like the Red Cross. Due to their widespread efforts, more than half of the United States blood supply comes from these national agencies. While all efforts toward increasing the national blood supply are invaluable, it’s best practice to prioritize donating to regional blood banks. One reason for this is that blood sourced from local centers is much more affordable to hospitals. Some hospitals, like Boston Children’s Center, even have their own donor centers, which can save them a substantial amount of money. The National Blood Collection and Utilization Survey (NBCUS) found that hospitals that collect blood on-site spend on average three quarters of the amount they would spend if they purchased the blood from suppliers. Some reasons behind this may include that off-site blood centers, but especially larger, more national organizations, may need to inflate blood costs in order to pay overhead. In addition, transportation and storage costs of blood are higher when blood is shipped from across the country, not across town. When considering all these factors, you can see that by donating locally, you could significantly cut the cost of a pint of blood, allowing hospitals to better allocate their resources to other aspects of patient care and cutting the cost of a patient’s medical bill, as well. To give you an idea of how cost-effective local blood donation is, one of our partners, ConnectLife Blood & Organ Donor Network, has saved hospitals in western New York over $10 million since 2007. Donating to a local blood center is also a surefire way to guarantee that your blood is delivered to a regional medical center, perhaps even more so if the center is unaffiliated with a national organization. This, overall, leads to more efficient care. By increasing the regional blood supply, you’re ensuring that there’s more blood at hand for hospitals and reducing the time it takes for blood to be delivered. In a medical emergency, this can mean the difference between life and death. This is all important to keep in mind when you donate. Of course, if you have no other options, it's best to donate to national agencies than to none at all, but you can maximize your impact by donating locally. Find your local blood center here.

What to Know Before Donating

What are the eligibility requirements for donating?

There are a few things to keep in mind before donating blood; we’ll start with the eligibility requirements. Though laws vary by states, generally you must be over 16 with parental consent (or over 17 otherwise), weigh at least 110 pounds, and generally be in good health -- so if you’re sick, stay home. Additionally, if you’ve spent time in countries where malaria or other communicable diseases are endemic, you may need to wait a few years before you’re eligible to donate. Lastly, men who have sex with men are ineligible to donate for three months after their last sexual contact with another man. This deferral originated from the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, but its scientific basis is still being investigated and largely alienates men who have sex with men and other LGBTQ+ donors. You can read more about this deferral through our educational series.

What types of donations are possible?

You’ll first need to decide what type of donation you want to make. You can donate whole blood, platelets, plasma, and red blood cells. Whole blood contains plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets and has a shelf life of 42 days. Plasma is the fluid part of blood, red blood cells carry oxygen, white blood cells are immune cells, and platelets are a clotting factor. The entire process for donating whole blood lasts about an hour, although the actual donation only takes about 8-10 minutes. You’ll need to wait eight weeks between donations. You can donate extra quantities of specific blood components--such as platelets and plasma--by having your blood filtered through an apheresis machine. Platelet donations are used as a clotting factor for surgeries, traumatic injuries, and chronic illnesses and have a shelf life of five days. It takes two to three hours to donate platelets, and you should wait at least one week between donations. Plasma donations are used to maintain blood pressure and as a clotting factor for hemophilia patients. Frozen plasma has a shelf life of one year and takes about 90 minutes to donate. You should try to wait 28 days between each donation, but some centers are relaxing this requirement on a case-by-case basis because of the need for convalescent plasma donation. Lastly, you can give a double red cell donation--you may also have seen this referred to as “Power Red” by the Red Cross. Because red blood cells are the most commonly needed blood component, doctors devised a way for donors to give two units’ worth of red blood cells in one donation by filtering out the rest of the blood components with an apheresis machine. This helps donors save their time, you can only donate half as frequently (once every 112 days as opposed to 56 days), which reduces the time commitment of donating by cutting the bureaucratic parts of donation appointments (i.e. preliminary screening) in half. However, because double red cell donation requires a higher blood volume than other types of donation, there are extra eligibility requirements in place--men must weigh at least 130 lbs and be over 5’1”, and women must weigh at least 150 lbs and be over 5’5”. Most blood centers also require you to have type O, A-, or B- blood. If you’re wondering what type of blood donation to give, start by asking your local center! You can also make a decision based on blood type--for example, type O is usually best for whole blood donations, and type AB is best for plasma donations. Lastly, if you’ve recovered from COVID-19, we encourage you to donate plasma to contribute to ongoing research efforts on convalescent plasma in treating COVID-19 patients. You can read more about convalescent plasma and our Push4Plasma campaign here.

What does the donation process look like?

The general process of donating blood starts with you drinking a lot of water and eating well the day of donating in order to stay healthy. You should also try to avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they’re both diuretics and you don’t want to become dehydrated before donating blood. If you’re donating platelets, you cannot take aspirin, or any medication containing aspirin, for two full days before your appointment; aspirin is a blood thinner, which can affect the clotting ability of your platelets, so you need to wait until it’s out of your system before you donate. When you first enter a blood center, you’ll have to fill out an eligibility questionnaire, which will ask about any travels, recent illnesses, and vaccines. If you pass this preliminary screening, you’ll get tested for iron levels, blood pressure, and other metrics to ensure that you’re healthy enough to donate. Once these tests are complete, a phlebotomist will come in to take your blood. After your blood gets drawn, you’ll be taken to a refreshment area, where you can eat snacks and rest for about ten minutes. This part is important— you’ll need to recover your strength before it’s safe for you to leave the clinic. Try to avoid any strenuous physical activity for the rest of the day. Once it’s all over, wait the necessary amount of time, then donate again!

Why should you donate blood during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It may seem risky to donate blood right now, but blood centers are doing everything they can to minimize risk to donors. Furthermore, COVID-19 has exacerbated the blood crisis, making donation more important now than ever. Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of blood donations has dropped significantly; the Red Cross canceled 37,000 blood drives between March and June alone in 2020. Local blood centers and hospitals have also been struggling; Boston Children’s Hospital, a UBI partner, canceled all of their blood drives from March to June, resulting in about 2,400 missing pints, according to BloodMobile Coordinator Cindy Mackinley. Because blood from drives makes up about half of the US blood supply, this is a huge blow. The situation became especially critical once hospitals began resuming scheduled surgeries. Furthermore, if you’ve previously contracted COVID-19 and recovered, it’s especially important for you to donate. Although evidence is currently inconclusive on the efficacy of convalescent plasma therapy in treating COVID-19 patients, researchers are still conducting trials, and plasma donation is crucial in helping them determine whether or not this is a viable treatment. Blood centers have always been extremely diligent about sanitization, but they’ve instituted even more safety precautions during the pandemic. To give you an overview of what this looks like, center staff wear face masks and gloves at all times (and change them often), wipe down surfaces after every donation, use sterile collection equipment (as always), and increase sanitization. They also provide hand sanitizer and conduct mini-physicals -- including temperature checks -- for every incoming donor. Lastly, centers now require you to schedule appointments so they can minimize contact between donors. In addition to all of this, there are several things you, as a donor, can do to reduce the risk of infection even further. Wear a mask at all times, sanitize your hands, and arrive at your appointment on time. This means not being early as well not being late; if necessary, wait outside or in your car until it’s your turn. Donating during a pandemic may seem scary, but keep in mind that it’s extremely important and that centers are working hard to make donating as safe as possible.

How can you support the UBI’s mission?

We aim to establish a fiercely collaborative network of strong, local, and independent blood centers, constantly at the cutting edge of society, systems, science, and social and public policy, in order to achieve a sustainable blood supply for the good of all. There are many ways in which you can support our mission. You can directly contribute to maintaining a steady, abundant blood supply by becoming a repeat donor, and you can empower your local blood center by making it your designated place to donate. We also invite you to follow and interact with us on social media, where we post educational content, promote UBI job opportunities, and showcase donors! Additionally, we encourage you to read and share our educational series on blood donation in order to educate yourself and the people around you. If you’re a college student interested in joining our efforts, you can join your university’s UBI chapter or apply to found one yourself. Or, if you’re of any age and would like to contribute your talents directly to our national team, please email recruiting@universitybloodinitiative.org with your resume. Lastly, if you’re able to, we ask that you consider donating directly to our organization. Donations help us cover operational costs and meet our goals - any amount helps! Since our launch, we’ve successfully undergone rapid expansion, reaching many new milestones. This has only been possible through our growing network of grassroots activists and supporters. We invite you to join the movement today!