Plasma donation, also known as apheresis, can help save lives. It is a relatively safe procedure, but there can be minor side effects.
Plasma is the liquid part of the blood. It contains proteins and antibodies that are crucial for clotting and immunity. Around 55% of the blood is plasma.
Plasma donation involves drawing blood, extracting the plasma, and returning what is left of the blood to the person, all through a single needle that remains in the arm throughout the process.
Plasma is in high demand, as it helps treat cancer and other health issues.
In May 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked people who had recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma. Experts believe that the plasma may contain antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the disease. Receiving plasma with these antibodies could help a person fight off the infection.
People with AB blood have a universal type of plasma, which means that a person with any blood type can receive this plasma safely. This is different from having the universal blood type, which is O negative.
The American Red Cross urge people with AB blood to donate plasma. A person can do this every 28 days, or up to 13 times a year.
Research shows that plasma donation is safe, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) emphasize that there is no risk of getting the wrong blood back. Also, the FDA and other health authorities regulate the equipment and procedure of plasma donation.
However, a person who donates plasma may experience minor adverse effects, and as with any other procedure involving a puncture, certain risks are involved.
In this article, we explain the process of donating plasma. We also look at the side effects and what a person can do to prevent them.
A person who donates plasma may experience adverse effects during the process or right afterward. These side effects can include:
Feeling faint or dizzy
The loss of fluid can lead to dehydration and cause some people to feel lightheaded during and after the donation.
This reaction is common and usually mild. Donation center staff encourage people to rest and have a drink and a snack after the process is over, to counter any lightheadedness.
During the donation, if a person experiences any of the following, the attendant may stop the procedure:
- nausea and vomiting
- low blood pressure
- sweating, twitching, or weakness
The person will then likely need to rest with their feet raised and drink some fluids.
Localized allergic reaction
Before inserting the needle, the phlebotomist uses a disinfectant to cleanse the arm.
If the person has an allergy to iodine or other cleansing solutions, they may develop one or more of the following at the site of the insertion:
A localized reaction such as this is unlikely to be dangerous, but if the person is uncomfortable, they can ask to stop the donation. Applying a cold towel to the area may help ease the symptoms.
Meanwhile, wheezing, difficulty breathing, faintness, and low blood pressure can be signs of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction. If a person experiences any of these, the attendant should stop the donation and provide immediate aid.
Bruising and bleeding
Some people experience bruising during or after the procedure. The site of the donation may be warm or tender, and there may be swelling or a sensation of pressure.
If a person experiences this, it is safe to continue the donation. To ease the symptoms, a person can apply cold compresses to the area for the first 12–24 hours and warm compresses after that.
If bleeding occurs, a person should apply pressure to the area and raise their arm. If the bleeding continues, seek urgent medical attention.
The chances of more serious problems happening during or after donating plasma are usually small. Still, drawing blood always poses some risks.
Localized infection or inflammation
An infection can develop if bacteria enter the body through the needle puncture.
Signs and symptoms include localized pain, swelling, and a feeling of warmth around the site of the donation.
Anyone who suspects an infection should contact the donation center.
During the donation, if a person has either a large bruise or a small bruise that occurs with pain, the attendant should stop the donation and apply a cold compress.
The person may benefit from continuing to apply cold compresses for the next 12–24 hours and warm compresses after that.
If bleeding occurs, the person should apply pressure to the area and raise their arm. If symptoms worsen or the bleeding does not stop, seek medical attention right away.
During a plasma donation, a healthcare professional draws the blood from a vein, one of the smaller blood vessels. If they accidentally puncture an artery instead:
- The blood will be bright red.
- The blood will leave the body rapidly.
- There will be a pulsing sensation in the collecting tube.
If this happens, the attendant will stop the donation immediately and apply firm pressure to the area for at least 10 minutes. Emergency medical help may be necessary.
Nerve injury and irritation
As a healthcare provider inserts or withdraws a needle, it may hit a nerve. This can result in:
- sharp pain at the site
- numbness or tingling in the arm or fingers
- shooting pain down the arm
- weakness in the arm
If this happens, the healthcare provider will stop the donation and apply a cold compress.
A person may attend a follow-up to ensure that any associated issues receive appropriate attention.
Citrate is a substance added to the blood during plasma donation to prevent clotting. Some people have a reaction to this substance.
If this happens, the person may experience:
- a tingling sensation in the fingers or around the nose and mouth
- a loss of sensation
A severe citrate reaction can cause:
- a rapid or slow pulse
- muscle twitching
- shortness of breath
Without treatment, this can lead to seizures, shock, or cardiac arrest.
One study has suggested that citrate could affect bone density, as it binds to calcium. However, other research does not appear to confirm this.
This medical term refers to the destruction of red blood cells, which can happen during a plasma donation.
The damage can cause hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, to leak into the bloodstream. This can cause the plasma to turn pink and the blood to be darker than usual. Also, a person may see blood in their urine.
If the attendant notices signs of hemolysis, they will stop the procedure and may call for additional help.
Sometimes, an air bubble can enter the bloodstream during apheresis. This may occur, for example, if there is a problem with the machine. If a bubble reaches the lungs or brain, it can become life threatening.
Anyone who hears a bubbling sound coming from the puncture site should alert the attendant.
Seek immediate medical attention any of the following occur after a plasma donation:
- a cough
- chest pain
- changes in heart rate
- other unusual symptoms
It takes longer to donate plasma than blood. Overall, donating plasma takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes, though the procedure itself only takes about 40 minutes. Also, on their first visit, a person should plan to spend extra time registering and filling out paperwork.
Before the donation
A donation center technician will:
- ask the person about their health and medical history
- check the person’s blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and hemoglobin levels to make sure that there is no anemia
During the donation
The steps are as follows:
- The donor sits on a reclining chair or couch.
- After cleaning the donor’s arm, a phlebotomist or nurse inserts a new, sterile needle.
- The blood passes through the needle to a machine.
- The machine removes the plasma and returns the rest of the blood —including red blood cells, platelets, and a saline solution — to the person through the same needle.
- Once the donation is complete, the attendant applies a dressing to stop any bleeding and prevent infection.
- The donor rests for 10–15 minutes and has a snack and something to drink.
The body replaces the donated plasma within 48 hours, in a healthy adult.
The risk of experiencing adverse effects of donating plasma is low. Still, it is a good idea to:
Hydrate: Plasma is roughly 92% water, so it is a good idea to drink plenty of water before and after the donation to make up for the loss.
Eat something: Having a small meal or a snack beforehand can reduce the chances of feeling dizzy or lightheaded during or after the donation.
Take it easy: It may be a good idea to rest, or at least avoid strenuous activity, for the rest of the day.
Donating plasma is usually safe. Still, to ensure high standards of care and hygiene, only donate at accredited centers.
People can find the nearest center with an online locator provided by the accreditation agency. They can also call 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767), or find the nearest American Red Cross donation center here.