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Needed: Blood Donations

Supplies tend to run dangerously short this time of year

FRIDAY, Feb. 6 (HealthDay News) -- The holiday season is long gone, and everyone has settled back into regular routines.

But there's still one gift left to give, one that's desperately needed this time of the year.

The nation's blood supply tends to dip dangerously low both before and after the holidays, due to a decline in donations. Now that the new year is under way, there's a real need for eligible donors to roll up their sleeves and contribute a pint of blood for the well-being of their communities.

"Everyone knows someone who has needed blood," said Jill Allen, director of donor recruitment for the American Red Cross' Lewis and Clark Blood Services Region, in Salt Lake City. "There is only a select group that can supply blood, and there is always a great demand for blood. If you can do that, you should share in the responsibility of making sure there is enough available."

Every year, almost 5 million people in the United States receive blood transfusions requiring nearly 14 million units of whole blood and red blood cells, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. On any given day, an average of 39,000 units of red blood cells are needed by patients and trauma victims.

And those people need the real thing. Science has been unable to come up with an artificial substitute for human blood.

"We need people to call their local blood collection facility and schedule an appointment to donate blood," said Jennifer Garfinkel, spokeswoman for the AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks. "One pint of blood can save up to three lives."

Blood has a limited shelf life, even after it has been spun down to its individual components, according to the American Red Cross:

  • Platelets must be used within five days of donation. They are given to help cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.
  • Red blood cells can be stored under refrigeration for a maximum of 42 days. Frozen red blood cells last up to 10 years, but because of the high cost involved, only a small portion of the blood supply is frozen. Red blood cells are administered to trauma victims, anemia sufferers and surgical patients.
  • Plasma is often frozen and must be used within one year. It is used to help burn victims or people requiring massive transfusions.

The blood supply usually drops around the holidays due to a "perfect storm" of obstacles, Garfinkel said.

First, there's the holidays. "People aren't on their regular schedules, especially people who are regular donors," Garfinkel said. "They are concentrating on other things. You also have school blood drives, whether it's high schools or college classes, that aren't taking place during holiday vacations."

On top of that, the cold and flu season is under way, making many otherwise eligible blood donors too sick to contribute.

And then there's the weather. "If it's snowing outside, people aren't going to leave their houses on icy streets to go donate," Garfinkel said.

To make matters worse, only an estimated 37.8 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood at any given time, according to the AABB. Some are disqualified due to their medical history, others because they are underweight or ill.

But, if you've been turned away from a blood drive before, don't assume you're still ineligible to donate blood, Allen said.

"People need to know they should always ask if they are eligible, because the criteria is always changing," Allen said. "Maybe I couldn't donate today because my iron levels weren't what they should be, but that changes over time. I think many people are surprised to find that they are eligible to be donors.

"Don't make the assumption that you aren't eligible for any specific reason. Really look into it," she added.

The American Red Cross offers these tips for folks ready to donate blood:

  • Eat a good breakfast or lunch featuring iron-rich foods such as red meat, fish, poultry, beans, raisins, prunes or iron-fortified cereal. Avoid fatty foods because fatty material in your blood can interfere with infection testing performed on donated blood. If that occurs, officials may have to discard your blood donation.
  • Drink extra water and fluids to replace the liquid you will donate, but avoid caffeinated beverages.
  • Wear clothes with sleeves that can be raised above the elbow.
  • Rest after donating, and enjoy a snack and a drink in the refreshments area.
  • For a day or so after a donation, rehydrate yourself by drinking plenty of fluids. Avoid strenuous physical activity or heavy lifting for about five hours after donation. If you feel dizzy or light-headed, lie down with your feet elevated until the feeling passes.

More information

For more on donating blood, visit AABB.

SOURCES: Jill Allen, director of donor recruitment, American Red Cross' Lewis and Clark Blood Services Region, Salt Lake City; Jennifer Garfinkel, spokeswoman for AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks, Bethesda, Md.; U.S. National Institutes of Health

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