Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Doctors may recommend blood transfusions as part of AML treatment. The specific transfusion type and associated risks depend on the person’s condition.

A blood transfusion involves receiving blood from a healthy donor to replace red blood cells, platelets, and other blood components that may be missing or damaged due to disease or treatment.

Transfusions are important in the treatment of leukemia, including AML. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, nearly all people with leukemia need transfusions at some point during their treatment.

This article overviews the purpose, types, and risks of AML blood transfusions.

Gloved hands removing a blood transfusion bag from a refrigerator.Share on Pinterest
ozgurdonmaz/Getty Images

Blood transfusions cannot cure AML, but they can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Transfusions can help:

  • reduce the symptoms of anemia
  • prevent or treat bleeding associated with thrombocytopenia, which is low platelet count
  • increase white blood cells to fight infections

Read more about AML here.

Doctors generally use a person’s symptoms and lab results to determine whether a blood transfusion is necessary.

A person with AML may be a candidate for a blood transfusion if they have any of the following:

  • a platelet count below 20,000 platelets per microliter (mcL) of blood
  • a hemoglobin level below 8 grams per deciliter (g/dL)
  • a white blood cell count below 1,000/mcL
  • a coagulation disorder
  • certain symptoms, such as:
    • fatigue
    • shortness of breath
    • pale skin
    • easy bruising
    • easy bleeding

These are general guidelines. The decision to transfuse blood depends on a person’s unique case and a doctor’s recommendations.

During a blood transfusion, a person may receive a pint of whole blood or specific blood components, such as red blood cells, platelets, or plasma.

Depending on their situation, people with AML may receive any combination of these components.

The most common types of blood transfusions for people with AML include:

  • Red blood cell transfusion: This replenishes low red blood cell counts, addressing symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and pale skin.
  • Platelet transfusion: This addresses low platelet counts, preventing bleeding and reducing symptoms such as easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Granulocyte transfusion: This increases granulocyte counts, strengthening the body’s defense against infection. Granulocytes are white blood cells.
  • Plasma and cryoprecipitate transfusion: This provides clotting factors in plasma, assisting people with bleeding disorders.
  • Intravenous gamma globulin: This is suitable for people with a weakened immune system.
  • Albumin transfusion: Doctors recommend this when people have low albumin levels, a vital protein for maintaining fluid balance.

Blood transfusions typically occur in a hospital or an outpatient clinic. However, the location may depend on the person’s circumstances.

During a blood transfusion, a healthcare professional inserts a small needle into a person’s vein, usually in the arm. The blood travels gradually into a person’s bloodstream through an intravenous (IV) line.

The process takes 1–4 hours, depending on the type of transfusion.

Read more about how long the procedure takes here.

Before a blood transfusion, a person’s healthcare team ensures the procedure is safe and effective. These steps may include:

  • verifying the blood types of both the recipient and the donor
  • conducting pre-transfusion testing, such as cross-matching
  • reviewing the person’s medical history, including any previous transfusion reactions or allergies
  • obtaining informed consent from the person or their legal guardian

Most people can resume normal activities after a blood transfusion but may feel tired or lightheaded for a short while.

The puncture site may be sore for a few days following the transfusion. Some people may develop a bruise.

People should follow the healthcare team’s instructions regarding aftercare. Typical aftercare steps include drinking plenty of fluids, resting, and monitoring for any symptoms of a transfusion reaction, such as fever or hives.

Read more about blood transfusion reactions here.

Blood transfusions are generally safe. There are some potential risks and side effects, including:

People who experience these symptoms during or after a blood transfusion should alert their healthcare team immediately.

Some of the complications associated with blood transfusions include:

Blood transfusions are a common medical procedure in the United States. Each year, doctors transfuse 14 million units of blood. The risk of complications from these transfusions is very low.

Cancer resources

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for cancer, visit our dedicated hub.

Was this helpful?

Almost everyone with AML will need a blood transfusion at some point during their treatment.

Blood transfusions are a safe and effective way to replenish red blood cells and other blood components that may be lost or damaged during treatment.

Although blood transfusions have potential side effects and complications, the likelihood of experiencing an adverse reaction is very low.