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Blood Product Transfusion

What is a blood product transfusion?

A blood product transfusion is a procedure that gives blood cells or parts of blood to a patient through a vein. Your child may need a blood transfusion if their body cannot make enough blood cells. The blood cells may come from a donor or from the patient. 

Blood cells develop in the bone marrow, which lies in the center of the bones. Some diseases and treatments can affect the blood or bone marrow and reduce the number of blood cells. These include:

What are blood products?

Blood has several components or parts. These are separated from the blood to produce blood products:

  • Red blood cells have an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's organs and tissues. Red blood cells also help the body get rid of waste products.
  • Platelets prevent bleeding by helping the blood to clot.
  • White blood cells fight infections and protect against germs.
  • Plasma is the blood's liquid part. It contains water, proteins, and substances that help blood clot.

Types of blood transfusions

The transfusion of whole, unseparated blood is rare. Blood is usually separated into parts, so the patient only gets what they need.

Red blood cell transfusion - If your child has anemia or a decrease in red blood cells, they may need a transfusion. They may also need red blood cells if they don't have enough hemoglobin to carry oxygen through their body.

Platelet transfusion - Your child may need platelets if they have low platelet counts. This condition is known as thrombocytopenia.

White blood cell (granulocytes) transfusion - Your child may need this transfusion if they have a severe infection that does not improve with antibiotics. Granulocytes are the type of white blood cell that is transfused.

Plasma transfusion – If your child bleeds too much, the doctor may order a plasma transfusion. Plasma has proteins called coagulation factors that help blot clot and stop bleeding.

Red blood cell and platelet transfusions are the most common type of blood product transfusion.

A gloved hand connecting a blood transfusion

What to expect during a blood transfusion

Most transfusions are done in a hospital setting, often in the hospital’s chemotherapy room, during a surgery, or at a patient's bedside. During a transfusion, your child will get blood cells through a small tube (catheter) that travels to a vein in their body. Once started, the transfusion may take 1-2 hours or longer. The time for transfusion depends on the type of transfusion, the amount of blood product, and the patient's weight.

When it is time for your child's transfusion:

  • The care team will check your child's vital signs including blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.
  • Staff will check the blood product to make sure it is correct.
  • If your child has a central venous lines (catheter) they may receive the transfusion through the device. If not, your child will get it through a peripheral IV.
  • The nurse will connect the blood product bag to an IV pump, which controls the infusion.
  • The staff will carefully watch your child to see if they have any symptoms of a reaction to the blood product.
  • The nurse will recheck your child's vital signs after the transfusion.
  • If your child has an IV, the nurse will remove it.
  • The nurse will talk to you about signs and symptoms to watch for and how to care for your child after the transfusion.

Risks of blood transfusions

If your child needs blood or blood parts, the risks of not receiving blood can be severe and even life-threatening. However, risks do exist for receiving a blood transfusion, as they do for all medical therapies.

Some patients may have reactions to transfusions. Typically, these cause mild symptoms, such as fever or a skin rash. In rare cases a reaction may be severe. In some cases, the reaction can be treated, and the transfusion can continue. In other cases, the care team will stop the transfusion.

Symptoms of a blood transfusion reaction can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Skin rash, itching, hives
  • Flushing skin
  • Swelling in the face, near the eyes and mouth
  • Trouble breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Changes in pulse or blood pressure

In rare cases, a severe hemolytic transfusion reaction may occur. This reaction happens when the donated product does not match or work with the patient's blood type. Their body attacks the transfused blood cells, which release substances that can harm the kidneys. The nurse will stop the transfusion at the first sign of this reaction.

Symptoms of a hemolytic reaction include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Back pain
  • Flank pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dark urine

Contracting a disease or infection, can occur through blood transfusion, but it is rare. Safety steps are in place to screen blood donors to make sure they are healthy. Donated blood is tested extensively before a patient gets a transfusion.

Symptoms of a blood product transfusion reaction

If your child receives blood or blood products, watch for these symptoms of a possible transfusion reaction.

During the first 24 hours after the transfusion:

  • Fever and chills
  • Skin rash
  • Trouble breathing
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting

For up to 2 weeks after the transfusion:

  • New fever or chills
  • Red or brown urine
  • Little or no urination
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Yellowing of the eyes
  • Easy bruising or bleeding

If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, report them immediately to your care team.

Safety of blood products

Blood products are most often donated by volunteer blood donors. Sometimes a friend or family member donates blood for a specific patient. In some cases, the patient’s own blood can be used.  

A patient must receive a blood product that works with their blood type. If the blood product isn’t compatible, antibodies in the blood will attack the donor blood and make the patient ill.

Blood banks take careful steps to make sure that blood is safe.

  • Blood banks type and match blood products to make sure they are compatible with the patient’s blood.
  • Blood donors are asked specific questions about risk factors that could affect the safety of the donated blood. They are not allowed to donate if risk factors are found.
  • Donated blood is tested for several types of infections. If the blood is positive for one of these infections, the blood is not used. 
  • Blood may also be screened for certain antibodies.

If you have questions about blood transfusions including the risks and benefits, talk to your care team. 

Key points about blood transfusions

  • Your child may need a blood transfusion if their body cannot make enough blood cells.
  • Types of blood product transfusions include red blood cells, platelets, granulocytes, and plasma.
  • Donor blood must be compatible with the recipient’s blood to avoid harmful reactions.
  • Care providers do safety checks before doing a transfusion.
  • Blood banks and care providers follow careful safety steps to reduce the risks of blood transfusions.

For more information

Reviewed: October 2022