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Overview of Blood Transfusion


Ravindra Sarode

, MD, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2024
Topic Resources

A blood transfusion is the transfer of blood or a blood component from one healthy person (a donor) to a sick person (a recipient). Transfusions are given to increase the blood's ability to carry oxygen, restore the amount of blood in the body (blood volume), and correct clotting problems.

In the United States, about 15 million blood transfusions are given every year. Typical transfusion recipients include

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates the collection, transportation, and storage of blood and its components. These regulations were developed to protect both the donor and the recipient. Additional standards are upheld by many state and local health authorities, as well as by organizations such as the American Red Cross (see Eligibility Requirements) and the AABB (formerly, the American Association of Blood Banks). Because of these regulations, giving blood and receiving blood are very safe.

However, transfusions still pose risks for the recipient, such as allergic reactions Overview of Allergic Reactions Allergic reactions (hypersensitivity reactions) are inappropriate responses of the immune system to a normally harmless substance. Usually, allergies cause sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, a... read more Overview of Allergic Reactions , fever and chills, excess blood volume, and bacterial and viral infections. Even though the chance of contracting AIDS Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a viral infection that progressively destroys certain white blood cells and is treated with antiretroviral medications. If untreated, it can cause... read more Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection , hepatitis Overview of Hepatitis Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. (See also Overview of Acute Viral Hepatitis and Overview of Chronic Hepatitis.) Hepatitis is common throughout the world. Hepatitis can be Acute (short-lived) read more , or other infections from transfusions is remote, doctors are well aware of these risks and order transfusions only when there is no alternative. Before ordering a transfusion (except in an emergency), doctors explain the risks of transfusion to people and ask them to sign a document affirming that they understand the risks and giving their consent for transfusion (called informed consent Informed Consent People have the right to information about potential harms, benefits, and alternative treatments when making decisions about medical care, and they have the freedom to accept or refuse care... read more ).

Rarely, some donors may also develop side effects following donation, including giddiness, low blood pressure, nausea, and tingling/numbness or bruising at the site of needle insertion for the blood draw.

Blood typing

People have different blood types. Blood type is determined by whether certain antigens (complex sugar or protein molecules that can trigger an immune response) are present on the surface of red blood cells. Blood cell antigens include blood group antigens A and B and Rh factor.

The 4 main blood types are A, B, AB, and O:

  • A: Antigen A (but not B) is present.

  • B: Antigen B (but not A) is present.

  • AB: Antigens A and B are present.

  • O: Neither antigen A nor B is present.

Also, blood may be Rh-positive (Rh factor is present on the surface of the red blood cells) or Rh-negative (Rh factor is absent). Approximately 85% of people are Rh-positive, and about 15% are Rh-negative.

Normally, if people lack an A and/or a B antigen, they have naturally occurring antibodies against the antigen or antigens that they lack. For example, people with blood type A have naturally occurring anti-B antibody, and people with blood type O (who lack both A and B antigens) have naturally occurring anti-A and anti-B antibodies. In addition to A and B antigens, there are several other blood group antigens also present on red blood cells. However, people do not have naturally occurring antibodies against these antigens. Such antibodies develop only if people are exposed to these antigens by transfusion.

Some blood types are far more common than others. In the United States, the most common blood types are O-positive for Rh and A-positive for Rh , followed by B-positive, O-negative, and A-negative. Uncommon blood type are AB-positive, B-negative, and AB-negative.

Compatible Blood Types

Compatible Blood Types

A blood transfusion is safest when the blood type of the transfused blood matches the recipient's blood type and Rh status (in other words, the blood types are compatible). Therefore, before a transfusion, blood banks do a test called a type and cross-match on the donor's and the recipient's blood. This test minimizes the chance of a dangerous or possibly fatal reaction.

In addition, the recipient's blood is checked for certain antibodies to red blood cells. Such antibodies can cause a reaction to transfused blood.

However, in an emergency, anyone can receive type O red blood cells. Thus, people with type O blood are known as universal donors. People with type AB blood can receive red blood cells from a donor of any blood type and are known as universal recipients.

Recipients whose blood is Rh-negative must receive blood from Rh-negative donors (except in life-threatening emergencies), but recipients whose blood is Rh-positive may receive Rh-positive or Rh-negative blood.

More Information

The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

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