A blood transfusion means injecting an external source of blood or blood products into your bloodstream through a vein or artery. Blood transfusions can transfuse whole blood or just the individual part you need, i.e. red blood cells, platelets or plasma.
Blood for transfusions is specially picked because the blood must be compatible with your blood type. If incompatible, your immune system might generate antibodies to attack the transfused blood. And that response can impair your health.
Blood transfusions are generally given as a replacement for a substantial loss of blood or as a supplement whenever blood is inadequately produced for health maintenance. Some of the circumstances and health conditions for which a blood transfusion may be necessary include:
- liver disease
- heart surgery
- kidney disease
- severe infection
- aplastic anemia
- Fanconi anemia
- organ transplant
- hemolytic anemia
- sickle cell anemia
- iron-deficiency anemia
- serious injury ~ car crash, war, natural disaster
- blood cancer treatment ~ leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma
Most blood transfusions introduce blood without a significant reaction or any serious side effects. However, having a blood transfusion is not a risk free treatment.
Some experience allergic reactions during a transfusion despite receiving a compatible blood type. These reactions may cause symptoms of:
- back pain
- chest pain
- rapid pulse
- breathing problems
Rarely an allergic reaction may lead to anaphylaxis. Typically, a transfusion will be stopped at the first signs of an allergic reaction for further blood reaction assessment.
Hemolytic reaction is a potentially serious transfusion reaction to incompatible blood. Essentially, your immune system attacks the introduced blood. And this side effect can be immediate or delayed.
Symptoms for hemolytic reaction are:
Usually these symptoms will appear contemporaneously with your transfusion, but they can develop several days later. A hemolytic reaction does run a risk of further complications, like:
Another side effect risk is fever. A sudden fever from a blood transfusion is usually a normal response to white blood cells in the transfused blood. Sometimes white blood cells are removed, which lessens your likelihood of this reaction.
A major concern for many is that some infectious agents are present in blood donated by an infected individual. Yet, the risk of catching any infectious disease from a blood transfusion is extremely low due to careful screening and testing. Viral and bacterial infections that could potentially be present in bestowed blood are:
Because of the possible risk of being transmitted Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of Mad Cow Disease, those with any possibility of previous exposure are not eligible blood donors.
Secondary hemochromatosis is a potential side effect of receiving multiple blood transfusions. Those suffering from blood disorders tend to be at this risk because of their need for repeated blood transfusions. The treatment for iron overload is chelation.
Graft-versus-host disease is another condition caused by blood transfusions. This health danger means the white blood cells in the blood you’re given attack your tissues. Those with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for this blood transfusion side effect. White blood cell removal guards against this reaction.
In most situations, blood transfusion benefits far exceed its risks. One way to reduce your chances of an adverse reaction or side effect is by using your own blood. Obviously, this is only plausible when given a blood drawing chance.