Plasma is the liquid part of blood, containing vital proteins and antibodies for blood clotting and immunity. It is an important resource in healthcare, and the World Health Organization (WHO) consider it to be an essential medicine.
A plasma transfusion can be lifesaving when someone needs one, and donors are in high demand. In this article, we explain the process of donating plasma, look at the risks and side effects, and give tips on donating safely.
Donating blood plasma may cause symptoms such as feeling faint, and some tenderness at the site where the needle was injected.
Some people experience immediate side effects when donating plasma. These effects should be temporary, only occurring during the donation process or shortly afterward. They include:
- Feeling faint or dizzy: Some people may feel lightheaded due to the loss of fluid and temporary stress placed on the cardiovascular system, which circulates blood around the body.
- Bruising and tenderness: Some swelling, discoloration, or pain may result from the needle being inserted into a vein in the arm.
A reaction to the process of plasma donation can cause some less common side effects. These include:
Citrate is a substance that is added to the blood, during plasma donation, to prevent clotting. If a donor reacts to this substance, they may experience a tingling feeling in the fingers or around the nose and mouth or a loss of sensation.
A severe citrate reaction may cause shivering, a rapid or slow pulse, muscle twitching, or shortness of breath. If untreated, this may lead to seizures, shock, or cardiac arrest.
Localized allergic reaction
Disinfecting the arm before inserting a needle may cause some redness or irritation of the skin if someone has an allergy to a disinfectant, such as iodine.
Uncommon side effects include an allergic reaction to substances added to the blood.
There can be risks associated with the use of a needle to withdraw blood when a donation is made. This is one of the reasons why it is important to use a registered donation center that has experienced staff and good hygiene standards.
The risks associated with plasma donation include:
- Arterial puncture: Plasma is taken from a vein, one of the smaller blood vessels in the body. Arteries have more rapid blood flow. If an artery is punctured, a person is likely to experience pain and a larger bruise.
- Nerve injury and irritation: As a needle is inserted or withdrawn, it may hit a nerve, which can result in a sharp pain.
- Localized infection or inflammation: This can happen if bacteria are introduced into the body from the needle puncture. Signs and symptoms of an infection can include local pain, swelling, or a feeling of warmth around the affected area.
There has been limited research into the long-term side effects of donating plasma. Citrate, added to the blood during donation, binds to calcium. The Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association has published research looking into concerns that donating plasma could affect bone density, as a result.
The risk of damaging veins is low if the right needle is used in a hygienic environment.
There is also a small possibility of side effects for the person receiving a plasma transfusion. These risks include a rise in temperature, itching or a rash, and in extreme cases, anaphylaxis.
Less common but more severe potential side effects for the recipient are injuries to the lungs or stress to the cardiovascular system.
A study about the risks of plasma transfusion published in the journal Transfusion suggested that most of these side effects were not lethal and were properly treated in health centers.
What to expect
Donating plasma takes longer than blood donation, which usually lasts 10 to 20 minutes. A plasma donation can take 1 to 2 hours, and people should allow longer for registration and paperwork if it is their first visit.
The technician managing the donation will be able to answer any questions, and should offer drinks and a light snack after the donation.
Donors will usually be asked about their health and medical history, and have a basic physical examination to check blood pressure, temperature, and their general health.
The donor's arm should be cleaned before a new, sterile needle is inserted. Donors can expect to be seated on a reclining chair or couch while the plasma is collected.
The standard procedure, by which plasma is collected and separated from other blood components, is known as plasmapheresis. During the process, whole blood is taken from a vein, the plasma collected, and the remaining blood then returned to the donor.
This procedure and the equipment used are sanctioned by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Once the donation is complete, a bandage may be applied. The donor should be offered a snack, drink, and somewhere to recover for 10 to 15 minutes.
Healthy adults replace plasma quickly after it is removed, so the body's plasma levels should return to normal a few days after a donation.
Reducing side effects
It is important to prepare the body before donating plasma and to take care of it afterward. Following these simple steps can reduce the risks or any likelihood of side effects:
- Hydrate: As plasma is roughly 92 percent water, donors will lose fluid during the process. In preparation, people should drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids on the day of their plasma donation.
- Eat something: People should not donate on an empty stomach. Eating a small meal or a snack beforehand will mean they are less likely to feel dizzy or lightheaded.
- Citrate reaction: If someone does experience a loss of sensation or any other reaction during their donation, they should let the healthcare provider looking after them know. They should be able to pause the process to let the body adjust to the citrate levels in their body.
- Rehydrate: Donation centers should offer somewhere to sit and something to eat and drink to help recovery immediately after a plasma donation. It is important to replace the fluid lost after donation.
- Take it easy: Donors will be dehydrated after giving plasma, and their bodies will be working to replace the fluid they have donated. They should avoid heavy manual labor or demanding exercise for a day or two.
- Do not donate too often: People should allow their bodies enough time to recover between donations. As the potential long-term side effects of plasma donation are unknown, it is best for someone to wait a minimum of 28 days between donations.
It is important to donate plasma at a recognized center to ensure good standards of professional care and hygiene.
People can find their nearest accredited center with an online locator provided by the accreditation agency, AABB, previously known as the American Association of Blood Banks. They can also call 1-800-RED-CROSS to find the nearest American Red Cross donation center.
A plasma transfusion can be lifesaving. Plasma is often crucial in treating those with medical issues, such as trauma injuries or cancer, so donating plasma can change lives.