Get prepared for a blood transfusion
- Why is there a government inquiry into infected blood and does it affect me?
- Is a blood transfusion the best treatment for me?
- Will I be asked to give my consent for a blood transfusion?
- Can I refuse a blood transfusion?
- Is there an alternative - if so, what?
- What will a blood transfusion involve?
- How long will it take?
- Why do I need it?
- Is it safe?
- How will it feel?
- Could my relatives give me their blood?
- Can I give some blood before my operation, so I can get it back if needed?
- I am a blood donor. Will I still be able to donate blood if I have a transfusion?
- Where can I find out more about blood transfusion?
Why is there a government inquiry into infected blood and does it affect me?
You may be concerned about stories in the news related to the Public Inquiry announced by the Government into how infected blood/blood products were given to patients.
This Inquiry is about blood and blood products given to patients by the NHS in the 1970s and 80s and the care provided to those infected and their families, carers and loved ones (described by the Inquiry as the affected).
Please do not be alarmed about giving a blood donation or receiving a blood transfusion today. Whilst no medical treatment can have zero risk for patients, we would like to reassure patients receiving blood that modern safety standards are very rigorous, and our blood supply is one of the safest in the world.
Safety is at the forefront of everything we do. We follow strict guidelines and testing to protect both donors and patients. We are also subject to regular inspections by independent regulators.
All our donors are unpaid volunteers, and every donor completes an extensive donor health check questionnaire before each blood donation. Potential donors considered at risk of passing on an infection are asked to defer donating until it is safe for them to do so.
All donations are routinely tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis E, human immunodeficiency virus, syphilis and for first time donors, human T-lymphotropic virus, before they are released to hospitals. If any blood donation tests positive for infection, it is not released and therefore cannot be issued to a patient. The donor is given support and advice.
NHSBT provides information leaflets for patients about blood transfusion. Whilst these do not replace the guidance provided by the doctors and nurses caring for you, they can help inform discussions with about the benefits, risks and any suitable alternatives to blood transfusion. Read our 'Will I need a blood transfusion?' leaflet (PDF 378KB).
For more information about hepatitis C and other infections please visit NHS Direct.
Is a blood transfusion the best treatment for me?
Like all medical treatments, a blood transfusion will only be given if it is essential. A Healthcare Professional will balance the risk of you having a blood transfusion against the risk of not having one.
Will I be asked to give my consent for a blood transfusion?
The benefits and risks of blood transfusion should be fully discussed with you, so you can make an informed choice about giving your consent.
Get more information on consent and blood transfusion
Can I refuse a blood transfusion?
You do have the right to refuse a blood transfusion, but you need to fully understand the consequences of this before doing so. This is why it is important to talk about your questions or concerns with a healthcare professional. Some medical treatments or operations cannot be safely carried out without a blood transfusion being given.
Is there an alternative - if so, what?
Certain medical conditions causing anaemia may be managed by treating the cause rather than by giving a blood transfusion. If you are told that you might need a blood transfusion, you should ask why it is necessary and whether there are any alternative treatments.
Blood transfusion is only needed for a small number of patients having an operation. Sometimes it is possible to recycle your own blood during or after an operation. Ask if this is appropriate for you.
What will a blood transfusion involve?
A blood sample will be taken from you before the transfusion, to ensure that the blood you receive is a correct match to your own blood. It is important that staff identify you correctly by asking you your full name and date of birth, and then check these details against your identity band before taking the sample.
A blood transfusion is usually given through a tiny tube directly into a vein in the arm. Again it is important that staff identify you correctly by asking you your full name and date of birth, and then check these details against your identity band, before starting the transfusion.
Although there may be a little discomfort when the tube is put into the vein, you should not feel anything when the transfusion is in progress. If you do feel any discomfort or feel any different, then make sure you tell a member of staff straight away.
How long will it take?
It may take up to four hours to give each bag of blood, but it can be safely given more quickly in the majority of cases. You may be given more than one bag of blood as part of your treatment.
Why do I need it?
A blood transfusion may be given because of a shortage of red blood cells in the blood, either because the body is not making enough of them, or by loss of blood.
Sometimes the bone marrow, which produces blood cells, cannot make enough of them. This may be due to disease or a failure of the bone marrow to work properly. It may be temporary or a longer term problem. Some treatments, such as chemotherapy, can also affect the bone marrow in this way. In some cases the anaemia can be treated with medicines; in other cases, a blood transfusion may be the best treatment.
Most people can cope with losing a moderate amount of blood without needing a blood transfusion, as this loss can be replaced with other fluids. However, if larger amounts of blood are lost, a blood transfusion may be the best way of replacing blood rapidly.
A blood transfusion may be needed to treat severe bleeding, for example during or after an operation, childbirth or after a serious accident.
Is it safe?
Yes, the risk that a blood transfusion will make you ill is very low. One of the most important ways of achieving a safe transfusion is to make sure you get the right blood. You can help reduce the small risk of being given the wrong blood by asking your nurse or doctor to check that it is the right blood for you.
Compared to other everyday risks the likelihood of getting an infection from a blood transfusion is very low. All blood donors are unpaid volunteers. They are very carefully selected and tested to make sure that the blood they donate is as safe as possible.
Although the risk of getting variant Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease (vCJD) from a blood transfusion is probably low with a single blood transfusion, the risk of any infection will increase with additional blood transfusions. Each year, approximately 2.5 million units of blood are transfused in the United Kingdom and there have been just a handful of cases where patients are known to have become infected with vCJD from a blood transfusion.
How will it feel?
Most people do not feel anything whilst receiving a blood transfusion.
You will be observed before, during and after your blood transfusion. If you feel unwell during or after it, you should inform your doctor or nurse immediately.
Some people may develop a temperature, chills or a rash. These reactions are usually mild and are easily treated with medicines such as paracetamol or antihistamines, or by slowing down or stopping the blood transfusion.
Severe reactions to blood are extremely rare. If they do occur, staff are trained to recognise and treat them.
Could my relatives give me their blood?
The UK transfusion services discourage donation by parents, relatives or friends (so-called 'directed donation') for medical reasons.
Patients or parents may assume that there is a lower risk of disease transmission if the chosen person's blood is used rather than blood from the blood bank. However, published data show that blood from voluntary donors is in fact likely to be safer for the patient.
In some studies there has been a higher incidence of signs of infection in those who want to be directed donors than in the normal donor population. This is especially a concern when the directed donor is a first-time donor rather than a regular blood donor, as there is no history of previous testing.
The donor may not have a blood group that is compatible with the patient's; even if the blood group is the same, there are still potential problems with blood reactions, similar to those when an organ is transplanted - often called 'rejection'.
Can I give some blood before my operation, so I can get it back if needed?
This technique, known as Pre-operative Autologous Donation (PAD), is not routinely available in the UK.
Blood contains many different cells. The red cells contain haemoglobin (Hb) and are essential for carrying oxygen around the body. A lack of these red blood cells is called anaemia.
In PAD, the patient goes for surgery with a lower than normal Hb, which may cause problems when they are put to sleep for the operation, and many patients still receive donated blood. Also, blood has a shelf life of only 35 days, so if surgery is postponed or cancelled, then the blood will be wasted as it cannot be given to anyone else.
In rare cases of unusual antibody formation or in a situation of blood shortage, PAD may be considered, but it can only be carried out in premises specially licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
I am a blood donor. Will I still be able to donate blood if I have a transfusion?
As a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of transmitting vCJD, people who have received a blood transfusion since 1980 are not currently able to donate blood.
Where can I find out more about blood transfusion?
If you are interested in finding out more about blood transfusion and have access to the internet, you may find the following websites useful: