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Woman donating blood

The U.S. blood supply is critically low. Donating blood and platelets can help save lives. 

Hallie Levine

By Hallie Levine

Toilet paper and cream cheese weren’t the only goods in short supply during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The health care industry was hit hard, too. Frontline workers were left without enough personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. Now they’re reporting they don’t even have enough blood to help patients in need. 

Since March 2020, the American Red Cross has seen a 10% drop in the number of people donating blood. In January, this decline in donors, along with other factors, including winter weather, busy holiday schedules and a surge in Omicron infections, resulted in the worse blood shortage in a decade. 

In fact, some blood centers had less than a day’s supply on hand. While the situation has improved since then, it remains vital that people roll up a sleeve and give. 

“Today, we are no longer in a blood crisis, but the blood supply still remains vulnerable,” says Jessica Merrill, director of Biomedical Communications at the American Red Cross. “Having readily available blood products is critical in supporting many modern medical treatments and procedures and helps save thousands of lives each year.” 

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Why blood donation is so important 

Every 2 seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion, but only 3% of people in the U.S. give blood, says Merrill. That could be a patient battling cancer, a car accident victim or a parent experiencing a difficult childbirth. Blood has a shelf life of just 42 days. That’s why it’s so important to keep replenishing the supply.  

Here are some of the main things blood transfusions are used for: 

  • Transplants. “Liver, heart and lung transplants are lifesaving operations that can’t be done without blood transfusions,” says Robertson Davenport, MD. He’s the director of the Blood Bank and Transfusion Service at the University of Michigan. When an organ becomes available, there’s only a short window of time (often just hours) for the transplant to occur. “Without enough blood in the blood bank, the transplant just can’t be done,” he says. 
  • Cancer. Some people with certain types of cancer, such as leukemia, need multiple blood transfusions to get through their treatment, says Dr. Davenport. And this treatment can last for weeks. 
  • Severe trauma. Whether it’s a car accident or an unexpectedly difficult childbirth, bleeding is the No. 1 cause of death in these situations. “Some trauma victims need literally gallons of blood,” Dr. Davenport says. 

What’s needed, exactly 

Blood banks have a dire need for all donations. But certain types of blood are in shorter supply than others. These donations are most critical: 

  • Type O positive. This is the most transfused blood type because it can be given to Rhesus-positive patients, no matter what their blood type. (The Rhesus factor, or Rh factor, is an inherited protein found in the blood of most people.) Around 38% of people have O positive blood, which makes it the most common blood type. “Unfortunately, type O is in particularly short supply right now,” Dr. Davenport says. 
  • Type O negative. This is the universal blood type. It can be given to anyone. And it’s what emergency room staff use when there’s not enough time to determine someone’s blood type. It’s harder to get than other blood types, since only 7% of the population have O negative blood. But just a single car accident victim can require up to 100 units of O negative blood. That’s why it’s always the first blood type to run out during a shortage. 
  • Platelets. The clotting portion of blood is often given to patients undergoing cancer treatments and people undergoing major surgeries. “These are also in short supply because they can only be stored for up to 5 days,” Dr. Davenport says. Since someone needs platelets every 15 seconds, new donors are required daily. 

Different types of blood donations 

There are several types of donations, which have different eligibility requirements. 

Whole blood donation 

What it is: It’s blood in its natural form. It can be transfused to someone as is, or it can be separated into red cells, plasma (the fluid part of blood) and platelets.  

Who can donate: Anyone who’s at least 16 years old and weighs at least 110 pounds.  

How often you can donate: Every 56 days, up to 6 times a year 

Time it takes to donate: About 1 hour 


Power red donation 

What it is: This is similar to a whole blood donation but uses a special machine that allows you to donate 2 units of red blood cells while filtering out plasma and platelets and returning them back to you. 

Who can donate: You must have type O, A negative or B negative blood. Male donors must be at least 17 and at least 5-foot-1 and 130 pounds. Female donors must be at least 19 and at least 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds. 

How often you can donate: Every 112 days, up to three times a year 

Time it takes to donate: About 1½ hours 

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Platelet donation 

What it is: As mentioned above, platelets are tiny cells that help your blood clot and stop bleeding. To make a donation, a machine collects your platelets and returns your red cells and most of your plasma back to you. 

Who can donate: Anyone who’s at least 17 and who weighs at least 110 pounds can give. 

How often you can donate: Every 7 days, up to 24 times a year 

Time it takes to donate: About 2½ hours 


Plasma donation 

What it is: Plasma is the fluid part of your blood that carries the red blood cells, platelets and other important contents throughout the body. Similar to platelet donation, a machine collects your plasma and returns the other blood components back to you. Plasma donations are given to trauma, burn and cancer patients. 

Who can donate: You must have type AB blood, be at least 17 years old and weigh at least 110 pounds. 

How often you can donate: Every 28 days, up to 13 times a year 

Time it takes to donate: About 1½ hours 

Just remember that you can’t donate blood if you have a respiratory virus such as a cold, flu or COVID-19. You should also let the center know what over-the-counter and prescription medications you take. (Want to save more on your medications? Present this prescription coupon card to your pharmacist to see what discounts you could score.) 

You'll also want to let them know of any immunizations you’ve had in the past month. Most of the time it’s fine, but in certain cases you’ll need to wait to donate. 

And when you donate blood, there are also some health benefits to you. You’ll get your pulse, blood pressure, temperature and hemoglobin levels checked. Your blood also gets screened for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. 

You can make an appointment to give blood or platelets by using the Red Cross donor app, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767). 

 

Additional sources 
Blood shortage: American Red Cross 
Importance of Type O blood donations: American Red Cross 
Rh factor overview: Mayo Clinic 
Platelet donations: American Red Cross 
Power red donations: American Red Cross 
Eligibility requirements for donating blood: American Red Cross