The Surprising Benefits of Donating Blood
Amid a worsening blood shortage, NewYork-Presbyterian experts explain how donating blood not only helps someone in need, but also offers health benefits for the donors themselves.
Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. requires a blood transfusion, according to the American Red Cross. The benefits of donating blood include helping people injured in accidents, undergoing cancer treatment, and battling blood diseases, among other reasons.
Unfortunately, current blood shortages are leading to delays in critical blood transfusions for people in need. In January 2022, the American Red Cross announced that it was facing its worst blood shortage in a decade amid the Omicron surge. This fall, the New York Blood Center shared that the gap between willing blood donors and the community need has widened, leading to their fifth blood emergency of the year. This is why blood donors are needed now more than ever before.
“Donating blood saves lives,” says Dr. Robert DeSimone, director of transfusion medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who is encouraging people to do their part and make an appointment to donate.
“For as long as medicine has been around, we’ve had to rely on the goodness of other people to give us blood when we need it,” says Dr. Sarah Vossoughi, the medical director of apheresis and associate director of transfusion medicine and cellular therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “We really need people who want to come and donate. The fact that we can store blood and use it when we need it in parts—whether you need the red cells, the plasma, or the platelets—has been a huge medical advance.”
While blood donors don’t expect to be rewarded for the act of kindness, rolling up your sleeve comes with some surprising health benefits. Here’s what you get when you give blood:
A Free Health Screening
“By going to donate blood, you are getting a mini-physical,” says Dr. DeSimone.
Before you are allowed to donate, your vital signs will be checked to make sure you are fit enough for the procedure. This exam might turn up a condition that needs medical attention, such as high blood pressure or a heart arrhythmia like atrial fibrillation. In addition, you’ll be screened for infectious diseases you may be unaware of.
“If we detect an issue with your vital signs or another health issue, we would direct you to go to a physician at that point to be checked,” Dr. DeSimone says.
The health screening will also reveal if you have a rare blood type. This information can be useful if you ever face surgery or another medical situation in which a transfusion may be required. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing your donation is particularly needed.
A Healthier Heart and Vascular System
Regular blood donation is linked to lower blood pressure and a lower risk for heart attacks. “It definitely helps to reduce cardiovascular risk factors,” says Dr. DeSimone.
What’s the connection? “If your hemoglobin is too high, blood donation helps to lower the viscosity of the blood, which has been associated with the formation of blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke,” Dr. DeSimone says. “Interestingly, these benefits are more significant in men compared to women. We think maybe it’s because women have menstrual cycles, so they do it naturally without donating blood.”
People with a condition called hereditary hemochromatosis must have blood removed regularly to prevent the buildup of iron. Fortunately, this blood can benefit others.
“These are essentially healthy patients who are otherwise normal, but they have a gene mutation where they make too much blood, and they make too much normal blood,” Dr. Vossoughi says. “So we can use that blood.”
The New York Blood Center Hereditary Hemochromatosis Program allows people with hemochromatosis to donate blood rather than have it removed and thrown away. “Instead of having to go to a clinic or go to one of our phlebotomy centers every few months to reduce their blood volume, they can go to any local blood drive,” Dr. Vossoughi says. “That blood will then be used for somebody who needs it.”
A Happier, Longer Life
One blood donation can save up to three lives, according to Dr. DeSimone. People usually donate because it feels good to help others, and altruism and volunteering have been linked to positive health outcomes, including a lower risk for depression and greater longevity.
“Giving blood is a way to engage in the immediate community and help people around you,” Dr. Vossoughi adds. “People who do these types of things and engage in their community in this way tend to have better health and longer lives.”
It is also a way to feel that you have positively helped during the COVID-19 crisis. Donating blood is safe if you have had the COVID-19 vaccine. It is also safe if you have had COVID-19, though you must be symptom-free for two weeks and have not had a positive diagnostic test for COVID-19 in the last 14 days, Dr. DeSimone says. If you have any COVID-19 symptoms like a fever or cough, do not give blood. Donating blood is safe as donors are socially-distanced and required to wear a face mask covering their nose and mouth, regardless of vaccination status.
“Creating moments of kindness during a time of need does wonders for your mental health and feeling of well-being,” Dr. DeSimone says.
Added Bonus: A Calorie-free Snack
“For one blood donation, it takes your body about 500 calories to replace it,” Dr. Vossoughi says. Thus, the juice and cookies you’re offered after giving blood are a “zero-calorie snack,” she says. If you prefer, go for a fancy dessert instead!
Blood Donation Tips
If you plan to give blood, follow these steps:
- Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated makes it easier to find your veins and prevents you from becoming light-headed after donating, Dr. Vossoughi says.
- Eat well beforehand. Don’t skip breakfast, and be sure to eat snacks offered to you. “These things will help you tolerate the donation well and feel like yourself the rest of the day,” she says.
- Exercise before donating blood, not afterward. It’s OK to go to the gym before you donate blood but not so wise afterward. “We don’t want people getting dizzy,” Dr. Vossoughi says. “You’ve basically done your workout for the day once you’ve donated blood.”
- Take iron tablets. The American Red Cross recommends that individuals who donate blood frequently take an iron supplement or a multivitamin with iron. “More and more, we’re recommending that teenage donors in particular take iron, because it’s been shown that teenage donors may become iron deficient after blood donation,” Dr. DeSimone says.
Click here to find out where you can schedule an appointment or walk in to donate.
Robert A. DeSimone, M.D., is director of transfusion medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. His main role is to oversee the day-to-day operations of the blood bank and to make sure patients receive safe and efficacious blood product transfusions. He is currently investigating the effects of blood donor health behaviors on recipient transfusion outcomes.
Sarah Vossoughi, M.D., RN, is the medical director of apheresis and associate director of transfusion medicine and cellular therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is also assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Prior to becoming a physician, Dr. Vossoughi served as a military officer, medical crew director, and trauma nurse in the U.S. Air Force in South Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where she evacuated more than 900 troops out of combat zones, earning six medals. Her research interests include hemovigilance, the processes that keep the blood supply safe, and pediatric transfusion medicine.