Blood cancer and blood transfusions
A blood transfusion is where you are given blood that has been donated by someone else. It’s usually given to you through a plastic tube into a vein in your arm.
Blood transfusions can treat the symptoms of blood cancer or help with side effects of treatment.
Why do I need a blood transfusion?
Blood cancer and treatments for blood cancer can affect how your body makes blood cells. Blood transfusions do not treat the blood cancer itself, but they do give you healthy blood cells if your body isn’t producing its own. This can help relieve symptoms and side effects.
Types of blood transfusion
If you have a blood transfusion, you’re most likely to have a red blood cell transfusion or a platelet transfusion. White blood cell transfusions are very rarely done as these cells only live for a few days.
Red blood cell transfusions
Red blood cells carry oxygen around your body. You might have a red blood cell transfusion if you have a condition called anaemia – where your body doesn’t produce enough healthy red blood cells.
Platelets help your blood to clot. They stick together to stop bleeding if you have a cut or a bruise. You may need a platelet transfusion if your level of platelets becomes too low.
Read about other types of blood transfusion in our blood transfusions fact sheet.
How safe are blood transfusions?
There are several ways in which blood transfusions are made as safe as possible.
Before having a blood transfusion, a sample of your blood will be taken to check your blood group. You'll only be given blood that's safe for someone with your blood group.
In the UK, all the blood that people donate is tested (screened) carefully for infections, so the risk of getting an infection is very low.
Donated blood is filtered to remove white blood cells (except in white blood cell transfusions). This also lowers the risk of infection.
Your healthcare team will do other checks to make sure you receive the right transfusion for you. They will also check your hospital wristband against the blood you’re going to receive.
Some people need to receive blood treated with radiation (irradiated blood) to prevent a condition called transfusion-associated graft-versus-host disease (GvHD). Your doctor will tell you if this applies to you.
Having a blood transfusion
During a blood transfusion, your nurse or doctor will insert a needle into a vein in your arm or hand. The needle is connected to a tube and a bag of blood. The blood runs from the bag, through the tube into your vein.
It usually takes 1½ to 2 hours to receive one bag (unit) of red blood cells, but it may take longer. Platelet transfusions usually take 30 to 60 minutes. You can normally go home soon after.
Side effects of a blood transfusion
Severe side effects from blood transfusions are rare. This is because the blood is screened first, and checked to make sure it’s the right match for you.
During the transfusion, a nurse will check your temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Some people have mild reactions like a temperature, chills or a rash. These can be reduced with drugs such as paracetamol or by slowing down the transfusion.
There’s a very small risk of having an allergic reaction to the donor blood. Tell the nurse straight away if you start feeling unwell during the transfusion. If your nurse notices any reaction, they can stop the transfusion quickly.
You should tell your healthcare team if you feel unwell after you get home.
Learn about blood transfusions, the different types, risks and safety in our blood transfusions fact sheet.
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