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Alberta Blood Transfusion Information

For Adults

​​​​​​​​​​What is a blood transfusion?

  • A blood transfusion is when someone is given a blood component. The blood is usually given through an intravenous (IV). An IV is a small tube or needle that is put into a vein in the hand or arm.
  • A blood transfusion is usually given over four hours, but can be given faster.
  • Doctors, nurse practitioners, or midwives can order blood transfusions.

Why are blood transfusions needed?

Blood transfusions may be needed if you:

  • lose blood in an accident
  • are getting treatments (e.g., chemotherapy)
  • are not able to make certain parts of your blood
  • need to have an operation
  • have an illness (e.g., cancer)
  • ​have parts of your blood that are not working properly

What blood products can be transfused?

Red Blood Cells

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. All of the organs in the body (especially the heart, brain, and kidney) need oxygen to work properly.


  • Platelets are small, sticky cells that make plugs on walls of vessels. This helps to prevent and/or stop bleeding.


  • Plasma is the clear, liquid part of the blood that has proteins in it. These proteins help the blood to clot. Plasma can be given with platelets to prevent and/or stop bleeding.

Blood Products Made From Plasma

Plasma can be used to make products to:

  • treat certain illnesses (e.g., factors for hemophilia)
  • help fight infections (e.g., immunoglobulins)

Where does blood come from?

  • In Alberta, Canadian Blood Services (CBS) collects blood from healthy, volunteer donors. All donors are asked questions about health, travel, and social history before blood is collected. This is to make sure that the blood is as safe as possible.
  • The blood that is donated is tested for different diseases. If there is a problem, the donor is not allowed to give blood again. Blood that does not pass testing is thrown away.
  • After the blood is tested, it is separated into all of the different parts (e.g., red blood cells, platelets).
  • When a blood component is needed, a sample of your blood is taken. This is to make sure that your blood will match with the donated blood.

What are the benefits of getting a blood transfusion?

  • If you have a low level of red blood cells, it can cause damage to the organs in your body. This is from a lack of oxygen. A blood transfusion can prevent this from happening.
  • Platelets and plasma stop bleeding by helping the blood to clot.

Are there risks when getting a blood transfusion?

The blood supply in Canada is one of the safest in the world. Getting blood always has some risk. The risk of getting different diseases for each unit of blood is:

  • human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) - 1 in 21 million
  • Hepatitis C - 1 in 13 million
  • Hepatitis B - 1 in 1.7 million
  • West Nile virus - less tha​n 1 in 1 million

Can I have a reaction to a blood transfusion?

Sometimes you can have a reaction when you get a blood transfusion (transfusion reaction). Some kinds of reactions are:

Allergic Reaction

  • This reaction is common. It is usually mild. You can get itching and/or a rash. Allergic reactions are treated by your doctor. Very bad allergic reactions (e.g., breathing problems) are rare. If you have ever had an allergic reaction with a transfusion before, tell your doctor. This is to try to prevent a reaction from happening again.

Fever Reaction

  • This reaction is not common. It usually happens during or shortly after you get a transfusion. With this kind of reaction, you can have fever, chills, and/or feel flushed. If you have ever had a fever reaction with a transfusion before, tell your doctor. This is to try to prevent a reaction from happening again.

Hemolytic Reaction

  • This reaction is rare. It can be very bad and sometimes very dangerous. It happens when your blood attacks the transfused blood. There are steps taken (e.g., blood testing, preparing blood) to make sure that the chance of this kind of reaction is low.

Can I use my own blood or get blood from someone in my family?

There are two ways to do this:

  • Autologous Donation is when your blood is collected so it can be used for transfusion at a later time. Autologous blood does still have risks. This is not done very often in Canada, and is considered only in special circumstances. Your surgeon can help you make this decision. You might have to go to a larger hospital to have this done.
  • Directed Donation is when someone donates blood for a specific person (e.g., a parent donating blood for a child under age 18 is the only time this is done in Canada). Directed donation is not always possible and is not safer than regular blood donations. A person wanting to donate blood for a family member must meet the same standards as other blood donors. Your doctor can help you decide if a directed donation is appropriate.

​Are there other options to having a blood transfusion?

Blood Substitutes

  • Artificial clotting factors are used in certain bleeding conditions (e.g., hemophilia). There are no artificial blood substitutes for red blood cell or platelet transfusions.

Other Alternatives

  • Medications like erythropoietin (EPO, Eprex®) and iron can increase the red blood cells your body makes.
  • Medications (e.g., antifibrinolytics) can be given to help prevent bleeding.
  • IV fluids can increase the amount of fluid in your arteries and veins.
  • There are ways to decrease the amount of blood that is lost during or after surgery using special equipment or techniques.
  • Alternatives do have some risks. For more information, talk to your doctor.

If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your doctor (or whoever ordered your blood component).​​​​

Current as of: June 15, 2018

Author: Transfusion Medicine Safety Program, Alberta Health Services