In many cases, rest and dietary changes are sufficient to resolve anemia. However, occasionally, a person may require blood transfusions to save their life. These may form part of the ongoing treatment that they receive to help manage anemia.
This article will outline how blood transfusions can help treat different forms of anemia. It will also explain the transfusion procedure and the possible risks and complications.
A blood transfusion is a common medical procedure in which a doctor transfers blood from a donor through the veins to an individual who needs it. Through this process, people can receive:
- whole blood
- red blood cells
Although people often donate whole blood, which comprises all of the blood products above and white blood cells, doctors do not use it often in transfusions.
Blood transfusions typically take place in a hospital, but people can receive them in outpatient clinics, at a doctor’s office, and even at home.
In people with anemia, the blood is not carrying as much oxygen to cells throughout the body as it should. The reason is either that there is not enough blood or that there are not enough hemoglobin-rich, fully functioning red blood cells to transport the oxygen.
Doctors can use a blood test of hemoglobin levels to diagnose anemia. According to the American Society of Hematology, females with hemoglobin values lower than 12.0 grams per deciliter (gm/dl) and males with readings lower than 13.5 gm/dl have anemia.
Research suggests that about 25% of people in the world have anemia, which has a significant effect on both quality of life and public health. People can develop anemia for many different reasons, including:
- unusually heavy menstruation
- poor diet
- chronic conditions, such as sickle cell disease or hemophilia
- internal bleeding
- kidney disease
- bone marrow disorders
- cancer and cancer treatment
- frequent blood tests
The best way to treat anemia depends on the underlying condition that caused it. For example, people with anemia due to colon cancer will require treatment for their cancer.
The most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency, which people can develop for many reasons, including chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic heart failure. Researchers recommend limiting the use of blood transfusions for this sort of anemia.
However, doctors may use blood transfusions to manage and treat specific forms of anemia, such as:
- Sickle cell anemia: This condition affects hemoglobin and distorts the shape of red blood cells. Blood transfusions can be particularly helpful when people are in crisis. Doctors may use blood transfusions to treat pain, chest problems, or leg sores and to prevent stroke.
- Aplastic anemia: When the bone marrow does not make enough blood cells, blood transfusions can help prevent infection, bleeding, and fatigue.
- Thalassemia: For people with this condition, in which the body does not make enough normal hemoglobin, blood transfusions help the body keep oxygen moving through the blood.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute note that a blood transfusion usually takes 1–4 hours to complete.
The complete process of a blood transfusion may involve more than 70 steps.
First, doctors will determine what type of blood transfusion is necessary and test the individual’s blood to find out the blood type. They need this information to ensure that they find an appropriate match for the transfusion.
Using a needle, a healthcare provider will insert an intravenous (IV) line into a blood vessel to allow new blood or blood products to flow into the person’s veins.
Doctors will closely monitor the person receiving the blood transfusion for any adverse reactions. Once the transfusion is complete, they will remove the IV line.
The amount of time that it takes to receive a blood transfusion varies. It depends on factors such as how much blood a person needs and what sort of blood product is necessary.
For anemia, people will receive a transfusion of red blood cells, which takes longer than a transfusion of plasma or platelets. The typical length of time for such a procedure is approximately 4 hours.
Most people who get blood transfusions do not suffer any side effects. However, some people may feel sore and get bruises where the doctor inserted the IV needle into their arm, while others may experience a fever or chills. Allergic reactions, from the mild to the more serious, are rare.
For the most part, experts consider blood transfusions to be very safe in the U.S., and the chances of transmitting infections such as HIV or hepatitis are roughly 1 in 1 million. However, as with all medical procedures, there are risks, such as:
- lung injuries
- stress on the circulatory system due to the large volume of blood
- immune system or allergic reactions to the donated blood
- too much iron in the system
- an increasing risk of an allergic reaction with a higher frequency of transfusions
In addition, units of blood are expensive, and if people receive more blood than is necessary, it adds an expense to medical costs.
Anemia is one of the world’s most common blood disorders. Many factors contribute to the disorder, including a poor diet, life threatening disease, or lifelong health conditions.
Blood transfusions can be a key part of treatment for people with anemia, when necessary. Most people who have blood transfusions notice few, if any, side effects, although there are risks to the procedure.