There are several different ways and reasons to give blood:

Whole blood donations. The most common blood donation. Each unit of donated blood is broken down into components:
Packed red cells are used to treat all kinds of anemia.
Platelet Concentrate is used to help clot blood and stop hemorrhaging.
Plasma is used for the treatment of clotting factor deficiencies, hemophilia, and shock.

Plateletpheresis. Platelets are only collected. Blood donors can donate 5 times as many platelets than a whole blood donation.

Plasmapheresis. Only plasma is collected. Plasma is the liquid part of the blood and is often used during organ transplants. Donors with AB blood types have "universal donor plasma" and are asked to donate plasma instead of whole blood.

Automated Pheresis Donations are used to collect a combination of red blood cells, plasma and/or platelets. These donations are designed to obtain the optimum mixture of blood components that can be collected based on the donors blood type and weight, and on the needs of the patients.

Pediatric Donations. Blood of donors who have donated several times and have blood type of O Positive or O negative, will be drawn in special bags to be used for pediatric transfusions. Low birth weight babies may need many small transfusions to treat anemia. One pediatric unit can be used for several days at a time.

Direct Donations are specified by a donor to be given to a specific recipient if the recipient's hospital is known. The units are used if the recipient is in need and if the donor and recipient are compatible.

Autologous Donations. Patients may donate for their own use in advance of elective surgery.
Information gathered from a booklet given to me today when I donated plasma to the Community Blood Centers of South Florida, Inc.
I give blood on a regular basis. My dad doesn't approve of it saying something about me getting diseased, and that the Red Cross was trying to "take advantage" of me or whatever. Bah. Giving blood's great!

For those that are still living 20 years ago, when you give blood, clean needles are used. By clean I mean BRAND NEW, they take the wrapping off in front of you clean. And they throw them out when you're finished.

Giving blood may actually be healthy for males. It's noted that excess iron can cause cancer in males, while females almost never have any excess iron. Females also live longer than males on average. Because females menustrate on a monthly basis probably contributes to both these statistics.

As for the Red Cross taking advantage of me... I gave up a whole 15 minutes of my life giving a unit of blood. 15 minutes!!! My god, I waste more time trying to figure out what to eat than I do giving blood!

It's the One Pound Diet! Okay, so it's technically not a diet, but you do lose a pound of blood that your body has to then spend a pound of nutrients replenishing. That means every cycle you give blood (about 2 months) you get to eat an extra pound of food. Yay!

If you're O- I can't stress how much you should be giving blood. As the universal donor, your blood can be used in emergencies where a persons bloodtype is unknown. Wouldn't it really suck if hospitals happened to run out of O- blood when you get wheeled into ER someday? Those that aren't O-, you should still give blood since hospitals can use your blood instead of that precious O- in cases where blood type is known (like operations and stuff).

So go give blood! It's soooo easy. Get your friends to go too. You got nothing (but a tiny tiny bit of time) to lose!

Donating blood is a pretty simple process. You should try it if you can. Here's how it goes.

  1. In the interview process a questionnaire is filled out. The questions are designed to identify potential health problems for the donor or potential infections that may be present in the donor that could be transmitted through transfusion to another person.

    You walk into the blood bank or bloodmobile and fill out a questionnaire. Then you wait a bit until someone comes to interview you. It's to check if you have any reasons why you shouldn't donate blood or if you would be adversely affected by the process itself.

  2. A fingerstick yields a drop of blood for testing to determine if the donor has a high enough hematocrit to safely donate blood.

    It's only a little tiny sting, and as long as you don't actually know when they're going to stick you, you won't flinch.

  3. The blood is drawn into a capillary tube which is then spun in the small centrifuge (seen in the background) to determine the hematocrit.

    Some donation centers will have other means to determine if your hematocrit is high enough. There are chemical "float" tests checking how fast your blood sinks, there is also a small black machine that seems to give a digital readout after a very small sample of blood is somehow inserted into it.

  4. The donor sits in a reclining chair. An inflatable cuff on the arm is used to check blood pressure and to maintain venous filling.

    The funny sucking, whooshing sound of a sphygmomanometer is one of the coolest sounds I know of. I'm surprised nobody's used it as a percussion sound in a techno song. Just relax. This part is easy.

  5. The site for drawing blood is selected and disinfected. A prominent vein is chosen for the venipuncture site.

    Sometimes they'll take a strip of rubber and tie it around your arm, then tell you to make and release your fist several times. This pumps up the veins in your arm so that they're more visible (and therefore easier to reach.)

  6. The disinfectant is applied to the area around the vein to be used.

    This is usually a cotton ball that's been impregnated with rubbing alcohol. If you're lucky they won't use Betadine, which has iodine in it and makes practically indelible yellow stains on your skin. But it makes the site clean.

  7. The needle used to draw the blood from the vein is gently inserted.

    The people who actually do the blood drawing at donation centers get so much practice at inserting the needles that they get very very good at it. As long as you don't wriggle around on the table, it involves surprisingly little pain.

  8. Blood fills the collection bag by gravity in a few minutes. The sealed plastic collection bag contains a blood preservative.

    The worker hangs the blood from a weighted lever on a stand. When the bag fills to a certain heft, it drops and the lever pinches the collection tube shut so you don't keep trying to bleed into the bag.

  9. Just after the bag has filled, blood from the line is taken to fill several vacutainer tubes for further testing.

    They take a little bit more blood, just in case you weren't completely honest on the interview or questionnaire, knowingly or unknowingly. It's for everyone's protection. If you watch, you can see it spurting into the vacutainers because of the relatively low air pressure inside them.

  10. The needle is removed and pressure is applied over the venipuncture site, then a bandage is placed for the next couple of hours.

    Oooh. A band aid or a cotton ball and some surgical tape! Neato. I like it when they give me those brightly colored little bandage spots.

  11. The donor drinks some liquid (here a tube of apple juice) to replace the lost blood volume, eats some cookies, and is on his way in about 10 minutes.

    If you go around lunch time, some blood banks will feed you with half a sandwich or something. Usually the cookies are pretty good, too. Sometimes you'll luck out and they'll give you a selection of juices.

The italicised portions of this node are drawn from http://www-medlib.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/BLDBANK/BLDBANK.html There is a wonderful tutorial all about giving blood.
For a number of years, I have volunteered for the American Red Cross as a blood drive coordinator and staffer. It's an intensely rewarding experience. Here's a bit more about donating in the United States.

You must be at least 17 years of age and at least 110 pounds. You must also be in good health.

  • Accepted
    • Persons with asthma and allergies will be accepted if they are breathing normally and under control.
    • Someone taking blood pressure medication may still donate blood if they are within the limits on the day of donation.
    • Even cancer patients can give blood if it has been five years since their diagnosis, surgery, or last radiation treatment, as long as there has been no recurrence or chemotherapy.
    • If you have had dental work recently - teeth cleaning, root canal, a filling, or an extraction without an infection - you may still donate.
    • Diabetics can give blood if it has been two weeks since their initial dosage of insulin or a change in their dosage.
    • If someone with epilepsy has been seizure-free for three months - with or without medications - they are eligible to donate.
    • You cannot donate if you currently have mono, but if you are fully recovered donation is allowed.
    • Nursing mothers may donate.
    • If you have had surgery recently but the wound is healed and you have gone back to normal activity, you may donate blood.
  • Temporary Deferrals
    • If you have recently received a blood transfusion, you will be given a one-year deferral.
    • Oral surgery related to abscesses or infections requires a three-day deferral.
    • A two- to four-week deferral is given following vaccinations for rubella, chicken pox, oral polio, smallpox, or meningitis.
    • An individual will be deferred for three years after the last symptoms of malaria.
    • A pregnant woman will be deferred until six weeks after birth, unless a blood transfusion was required.
    • If you have had a tattoo or non-sterile body piercing, you will be deferred for a year and a day from the date you try to donate. Sterility is not a factor for the tattoo, but if the piercing was done by a certified piercer donation is permitted.
    • Those who have spent more than 72 consecutive hours in a correctional facility in the past year and individuals currently incarcerated will be deferred for twelve months, as will anyone who has been in a mental institution for more than 28 days.
  • Permanent Deferrals
    • Cancer patients with leukemia or lymphoma are not eligible to give blood.
    • Those with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease will be indefinitely deferred, as will anyone with increased risk of CJD or with CJD-diagnosed relatives.
    • Anyone who has had hepatitis since the age of 11 will be permanently deferred.
    • A number of serious illnesses require permanent deferral, including lupus, Kaposi's sarcoma, Multiple Sclerosis, sickle-cell disease, and Lyme Disease.
  • AIDS and Blood Donation
    • If a health care worker has been exposed to the blood of someone with HIV, he or she must take a twelve-month deferral.
    • Permanent Deferrals
      • Men who have had sex with another man even once since 1977 are ineligible to give blood. This has caused some controversy among the gay community.
      • Anyone who has ever used a needle to inject illegal drugs or steroids will be permanently deferred.
      • Those who use clotting factor concentrates for a disorder such as hemophilia are not permitted to donate blood.
      • Anyone with AIDS or one of its symptoms, or anyone who has ever had a positive HIV test, may not give blood.
      • If you have had sex with an individual listed above within the past twelve months, you are not eligible to donate.
      • If, since 1977, you have received drugs or money for sex, you are not allowed to give blood.
      • Anyone born in one of a number of African countries since 1977 will be permanently deferred, as will anyone who has lived there for more than a year since 1977. Those who have received medical treatment with a blood product there are also ineligible. If you have had sex with anyone who was born in, has lived in, or received medical care in any of those countries since 1977, you are also deferred permanently from donation.

The Process
Every time you donate blood, you must fill out the same forms. When you are called, you will be given an interview behind a partition and your vitals (temperature, blood pressure, pulse) will be taken, as will a drop of blood to ensure you have enough red blood cells to donate safely. After you have passed the interview and drop test, you will be transferred to a table or reclining chair for the donation. It generally takes between ten and thirty minutes to donate a pint of blood, after which you will be escorted - even if you feel fine, someone will escort you - to an area with snacks and drinks to start the recovery process. Most donors feel fine within a couple of hours, but you shouldn't engage in any major activity for the rest of the day while the plasma is being replenished. It takes a couple of weeks to fully replace the cells taken during donation. Your blood is then tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis and you will be notified if anything turns up positive. (The ARC emphasizes that one should not donate blood just to get an HIV test as their procedures are not perfect.)

Platelets
Another important aspect of blood donation is platelet apheresis. Platelets, used to control bleeding, are needed by patients undergoing a bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, an organ transplant, and surgery, but they have shelf life of just five days. Blood cell separators are used to withdraw the blood from the donor, recover the platelets, and then return the blood to the same donor. It takes longer than whole blood donation but is as vital, if not more so. Many donation centers have a TV for donors to watch or books and magazines to read during the two-hour process. Within 48 hours, the body has completely replaced all platelets, so you can donate every two days - but not more than 24 times annually.

Sources
Platelets: http://www.redcross.org/services/biomed/blood/learn/apheresis.html
Eligibility: http://www.redcross.org/services/biomed/blood/learn/eligibl.html
Process: http://www.redcross.org/services/biomed/blood/learn/expect.html
...and personal experience.

In addition to the excellent and thorough writeups above, I would like to add a note about a less common aspect of blood donation: blood insurance. While this is probably not provided in many areas, at least one US state has such a program. The Medic Regional Blood Center in Tennessee automatically applies blood insurance to all donors. A single donation of whole blood nets you a year's coverage (two years for double red blood cells), and if you require blood in that time, Medic will provide it for free. Subsequent donations before the expiration of your blood insurance extend the coverage by another year, rather than resetting the year to the most recent donation.

You must wait eight weeks between whole blood donations, or sixteen weeks after a double red blood cell donation, which results in a constant potential blood insurance gain of 6.5 years/year. Of course, a year is burned in that time, so your potential profit every year is 5.5 years, making blood insurance an extremely efficient way of obtaining a free medical service for a very long period. The first time I gave blood was only about two years ago, and I already have blood insurance through 2016.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "Giving blood should be a purely altruistic endeavour. We shouldn't be discussing this in terms of personal benefit." You make a good point, but I make a better one: blood insurance covers your immediate family as well. This means that if you have a hemophiliac family member (as I do), you can indirectly provide blood for him, without worrying about conflicting types, on a schedule that's convenient for you, since you can give blood years before you redeem your credit.

Protecting yourself and your family certainly makes blood donation attractive, but your objections in the previous paragraph were well-founded; you should be giving blood as often as possible anyway, especially if you have type O. The possible gain for the recipient of your blood far outweighs the fifteen or twenty minutes it cost you to donate. The blood banks near me are frequently declaring emergency shortages, and sometimes they have fewer than 100 units on hand. The primary reason for this is that most people who are eligible simply don't think of donating blood. It's not a big deal until you need it, but when you do need it, you'll be glad someone was giving blood for you.

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