Tips for Giving Blood

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With the American Red Cross reporting a decline in blood donors, understand the donation process, your eligibility, and tips for preparing to give blood through this article.

For Kasia Starzec, a Blue Cross Vermont customer service team leader, being a blood donor is all about giving back to the community. Kasia, who has been donating blood since attending college, says she gives because “it just feels good, knowing that you’re helping.”

Roxanne Casadonte, a Blue Cross learning consultant, started donating blood at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic “as a way to try and help during a crazy time when I felt pretty helpless.” Since then, Roxanne has continued donating at least a couple of times a year. “I donate because I feel that it’s one of the ways I can help and feel like I am spreading some hope in the effort,” she says.

More Donors Needed

While Kasia and Roxanne roll up their sleeves to give blood on a regular basis, volunteers like them have been declining in number. The American Red Cross says the number of blood donors has hit the lowest level in 20 years, falling by about 40 percent. As a result, there is a nationwide blood shortage. The need is especially dire in the winter months when bad weather and respiratory illnesses prevent some donors from making or keeping appointments to give.

Blood donations are used for many life-saving medical procedures. They include:

  • Whole blood transfusions to replace blood lost from surgery or injuries
  • Platelets to treat cancer and to help patients recover from open heart surgery and organ transplants
  • Plasma for patients with liver failure, serious infections, and burns
  • Red blood cells for people with blood disorders like sickle cell disease

If not enough donated blood is available, medical procedures could be delayed. For example, a patient with lymphoma leukemia — a type of blood cancer — may have to wait hours or days to receive treatment.

To end the blood shortage and maintain an adequate supply, more blood donors are urgently needed. In this article, we’ll explain who can give blood and provide some tips for how to prepare to give. If a fear of needles is holding you back from volunteering, we’ll give you some advice about how to overcome that barrier.

Who Can Give Blood

For whole blood donation, you can give every 56 days, up to six times a year. In general, you must be:

  • In good health and feeling well
  • At least 16 years old (in Vermont)
  • At least 110 pounds in weight

Donors 18 years old and younger have additional height and weight requirements.

In addition to meeting the above general criteria, prospective donors must also answer a series of questions to determine if they are eligible to give blood. The medical history questionnaire asks about current medications, recent vaccinations, travel history, and sexual contact during the last three months.

In 2023, the Food and Drug Administration updated its blood donation eligibility guidelines to eliminate a policy that excluded gay men from donating. All potential donors, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, now answer the same questions to determine their eligibility. This change makes the blood donation process more inclusive and opens it to more donors.

There are some reasons why people may not be able to donate or may be told to wait. They include:

  • Having a fever or cough
  • Taking antibiotics to treat an infection
  • Recent immunizations for certain diseases
  • Taking certain prescription medications
  • Low hemoglobin levels
  • Travel outside the U.S. in the last three years to certain countries, such as areas with malaria risk
  • Zika or Ebola virus infection

The American Red Cross website has more information on common reasons why people can’t donate. You can look at eligibility FAQs to get a better idea whether you can give blood.

What to Expect

If you’re willing to become a blood donor and are eligible, here’s what to expect about the process.

First, you’ll need to find a location to donate blood and make an appointment. There are numerous blood drives held in Vermont, so you should be able to find a location near you. If you are in the Burlington area, the Red Cross blood donation center at 32 North Prospect Street in Burlington is open daily.

  • It takes about an hour from the time you arrive to when you’re ready to leave.
  • Upon arrival you will sign in, show an ID, and be asked to read some educational materials.
  • You’ll be asked about your health history and given a brief health assessment, which includes checking blood pressure, pulse rate, and hemoglobin levels.
  • You’ll be seated comfortably in a reclining chair for the donation, which takes about 8 to 10 minutes on average.
  • About a pint of blood is drawn, which is less than 10 percent of your blood supply. The body replaces the donated blood in four to eight weeks.
  • After the donation is completed, you’ll be given something to eat and drink. You can leave about 10 to 15 minutes after donating.
  • You can resume normal activities immediately after giving blood. You should avoid vigorous exercise or heavy lifting for about 24 hours to give your body time to recover.

Tips for Preparing to Donate

You’ve already made an appointment to give blood. Great! Here are some things you can do to get ready for the donation:

  • Eat foods rich in iron, such as red meat, beans, and spinach in the days prior to your appointment. Iron helps your body make new blood cells to replace the ones lost through blood donation. Consume some extra vitamin C as well, as this helps with iron absorption.
  • Get a good night’s sleep the evening before you plan to donate. This will help prevent feeling groggy during and after the donation.
  • Eat a healthy meal about two to three hours before you donate. You should not donate on an empty stomach. Avoid fatty foods, such as french fries.
  • Drink plenty of water or other non-alcoholic liquids so that you are well hydrated.
  • Avoid workouts or intense physical activity for 24 hours before. Strenuous exercise can temporarily increase your blood pressure and heart rate, skewing the results of the brief health assessment you’ll be given before donating.
  • Start the eligibility screening process in advance by filling out the American Red Cross’s Rapid Pass online questionnaire. You can also do this on your phone in the Red Cross blood donor app. You’ll need to bring the completed questionnaire with you to the appointment.

On the day of your donation appointment, be sure to:

  • Wear short sleeves or a shirt with sleeves that can easily be rolled up above your elbow.
  • Drink extra water beforehand (the Red Cross recommends 16 ounces). This reduces the risk of low blood pressure, a common cause of fainting. Avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine, as they can actually dehydrate you.
  • Take a list of your medications to the appointment, as you’ll be asked the names of prescription and over-the-counter medications that you’re on.
  • Have with you photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. If you don’t have a photo ID, you’ll need to bring two secondary forms of identification, such as your birth certificate and your Social Security card.
  • Bring some music or reading material to help you relax and pass the time.

Overcoming Obstacles to Giving Blood

One of the most common reasons that people don’t volunteer to donate blood is they are squeamish about having their blood drawn or are afraid of needles. If you are uncomfortable about having your blood drawn, here are some things you can do:

  • Bring someone with you. Having a friend or family member there to support you can help you stay calm. Talking with them through the process can be a distraction.
  • Don’t watch. It can help to look away from the needle and blood being collected. Find something like a clock or a photo on the wall and focus on that until the donation is over.
  • Take deep breaths. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth can help you relax. You can also time your breathing, drawing in a breath for four seconds, holding it for four seconds, and then exhaling for four seconds.
  • Use visualization. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a relaxing place, like the beach. If it helps, also listen to some favorite music on headphones.
  • Think happy thoughts. Instead of worrying, think about all the positive benefits of your donation, like helping save lives. You can also imagine how good that free cookie will taste when the donation is over.
  • Seek professional help. If you have intense anxiety around needles, a condition called trypanophobia, you may want to work with a therapist. They can help you with strategies like exposure therapy, which gets you more comfortable being around needles.  

Make a Difference

We hope you’ll join Kasia, Roxanne, and other Blue Cross VT employees in becoming a blood donor. It doesn’t take much time, and it’s a way you can make a big difference in other people's lives. Like Kasia and Roxanne, being a regular donor can give you a great sense of satisfaction and well-being.