This Simple Act Can Save Up to Three Lives

By the time you finish reading this sentence, someone in the US will need blood. Here's how to help.

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Donating blood is often referred to as giving the gift of life—and for good reason. Every two seconds someone in this country needs blood, reports the American Red Cross. And just one pint of blood from a blood donation can save up to three lives. Yet every year, less than 10 percent of Americans who are eligible to donate blood actually donate. People might resist blood donation for different reasons: fear of needles, busy schedules or they don’t realize how much their donation is actually needed.

Donating blood is not only a nice thing to do for the community, but it’s especially important at a time like this. When a casualty occurs, doctors can only use donated platelets within five days of collection. So, don’t wait for a tragedy to occur—donate year-round so that it’s readily available. Wilbert Jacobs, MD, a family medicine doctor of Orange Park Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida shares some other reasons you should donate blood today.

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Your blood can save up to three lives

One reason people forgo blood donations—they don’t have a lot of time. Well, that’s no problem because from start to finish, the entire process can be completed in about an hour. The actual blood donation part takes about eight to 10 minutes. Keep in mind, if you are donating platelets, red cells or plasma by apheresis (a medical tool which separates out blood components), it is a bit longer, and can take up to two hours. But now, with smartphone apps like the American Red Cross’s Blood Donor app, you can easily manage and track your blood donation and speed up the process.

The fine print: To donate blood you must be in good overall health, at least 17-years-old in most states and weigh at least 110 pounds. Still not sure if you can donate? Check out the American Red Cross’ eligibility requirements.

Here’s what can you expect if you donate blood with the American Red Cross.

Before you donate blood, be sure to:

  • Get plenty of rest the night before you donate
  • Hydrate, drink an extra 16 ounces that day
  • Eat a light meal before you donate but avoid fatty foods

Once you get to the site, you’ll be evaluated to determine your eligibility for giving blood. The staff on site will typically do a mini physical and take a small blood sample to check your hemoglobin levels. They’ll also check your temperature, pulse and blood pressure; as well as ask you some questions about your health history and places you’ve traveled in the past few months.

During the actual donation, the doctors will draw blood with a brand new sterilized needle, collect about one pint of blood and then place a bandage over the needle prick. You can usually leave 10 to 15 minutes later.

After giving blood, the American Red Cross suggests you drink an extra four glasses of liquid (except alcohol), skip alcoholic drinks for 24 hours and avoid heavy lifting or exercise. Stop what you’re doing if you become dizzy or lightheaded. If the problem persists, contact your doctor. If your blood test comes back positive for something like HIV, the blood will be discarded and you’ll be alerted.

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Your blood donation is multi-functional

One pint of blood can save up to three lives because your blood has a unique make-up. In fact, up to four of your blood’s components can be separated out and used for multiple people, also referred to as blood component therapy.

“It’s kind of neat because red cells can go to one person, the platelets could go to another person and the plasma could go to another,” says Dr. Parker. Donating just one pint of blood can help treat multiple conditions and traumas. Here’s a breakdown of what’s found in your blood donation:

  • Whole blood: The most common type of blood donation. This consists of red blood cells and platelets. It’s commonly needed during surgeries and traumas.
  • Red cells: They carry oxygen from your lungs back to your body’s tissue. This donation type helps during surgeries and traumas, as well as for blood disorders such as anemia.
  • Platelets: Forms clots to help stop or prevent bleeding. They are essential during surgeries, organ transplants, cancer treatments and traumatic injuries.
  • Plasma: Mostly made up of water and some essential proteins. Critical to helping burn patients and people with bleeding disorders.
  • Cryoprecipitated AHF: A portion of plasma rich in clotting factors. Especially useful for rare clotting genetic disorders such as hemophilia.

Your blood donation will most likely help more people than you think.

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Your stored blood doesn’t last very long

The shelf life of red blood cells is shorter than you think—only 42 days when refrigerated. Plasma is the only donation that can last up to a year. Platelets can only last at room temperature for up to five days. They’re difficult to store and don’t last long—they have to constantly be agitated to keep them from clotting. Once they start clotting, they start clumping up and can no longer be used. Parker says this is one of the main reasons you should donate blood.

“Because platelets don’t last long, new donations are constantly needed, which is especially important during a crisis situation.” Not to mention, someone in America needs platelets every 30 seconds.

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Your blood donation can help future you

Also called an autologous donation, a blood donation to yourself can help future you during a surgery or medical procedure. It’s also generally thought of as the safest form of blood transfusion because it’s your own blood. Although there’s a small risk of bacterial contamination, it’s one of the safest procedures.

An autologous donation can only be done with a prescription from your doctor, so make sure you discuss when and how often you should go. At the American Red Cross, you can donate every four to seven days, and must donate at least 72 hours before your procedure so that you have enough time for your red blood count to go back to normal.

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Your blood can help a trauma victim

There are eight different blood types, and each one is different because of the presence or absence of antigens in each. An antigen is any type of unrecognized substance which triggers the immune system. The membrane of red blood cells already contains millions of antigens, which the body does not attack because they are self-made. However, blood transfusions rely heavily on correctly matched blood, because if not, the body will assume it’s an antigen and try to fight it off.

The different blood types include:

  • Group A: This group can donate blood to A’s and AB’s.
  • Group B: This group can donate blood to B’s and AB’s.
  • Group AB: This group can donate to other AB’s and receive from everyone.
  • Group O: This group is the universal blood type, meaning someone with this blood type can donate blood to anyone.
  • Rhesus factor (positive or negative): A hereditary protein found on the covering of red blood cells. If your blood has the protein then you are Rh positive, if not, you are Rh negative. It’s valuable to know if you’re Rh negative, because it may cause risks in pregnancy.

Parker says that O negative blood is a very valuable thing to have in an emergency.

“If there’s an accident and a trauma victim is internally bleeding and they have O negative blood in a cooler in the trauma bay, already ready, they can just pull it out and give it to them without knowing their blood type.”

If you don’t know your blood type—learn it.

“It’s very important to know your blood type, because if you’re involved in a traumatic event, you can share that information,” says Parker. “It certainly gives your doctor more information to help not only yourself but also other people, especially if you’re O negative.”

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Don’t worry, your body replaces its own blood supply

Don’t skip blood donation because you’re worried about having less blood in your own body. The typical person has 10 pints of blood and you only lose one pint during a normal blood donation. The good news: your body replaces the lost blood supply on its own. Within 24 hours, your body replaces plasma. And within four to six weeks, your body replaces red blood cells—which is why you need to wait at least eight weeks between whole blood donations.

If you’re on the fence about giving blood, remember that a single person involved in a car accident may require as many as 100 pints of blood. If you donate just one pint, that person could be one step closer to living. Plus, it could be you on the receiving end one day.

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