Donating blood can save a life, and these donations are needed more often than you may think. Unfortunately, only an estimated 37 percent of Americans are eligible to donate blood, and only 10 percent of that number donate blood annually.
People who suffer from health conditions such as an autoimmune disease may wonder if they meet the requirements to donate. Decades-old myths can sometimes leave people incorrectly assuming that they’re ineligible.
While some awareness campaigns and days dedicated to blood donation (like World Blood Donor Day, usually on June 14 every year) have helped a bit, there's still so much to learn about blood donations. We've already gone over whether people with diabetes can donate blood, let's take a closer look at donating blood if you have other autoimmune diseases and conditions.
What You Should Know About Donor Eligibility
A few factors determine whether someone is eligible to donate blood.
According to the American Red Cross, donors must be at least 17 years of age and weigh a minimum of 110 pounds. They will be asked to fill out a questionnaire confirming that they are in good health at the time of donation.
Some conditions may automatically disqualify you from donating. A few include:
- Lymphoma and other types of cancer
- Exposure to mad cow disease
- A recently contracted STD such as syphilis
- An HIV, Hepatitis B, or Hepatitis C diagnosis
Certain prescribed medications may also temporarily prevent you from donating blood, such as immunosuppressants, blood thinners, and Accutane.
Can People with Autoimmune Diseases Donate Blood?
An autoimmune disease is a condition that causes the body’s immune system to mistake its healthy tissues as foreign and attack them. There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases, including conditions like celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s, and Graves' disease.
More than 23.5 million Americans are estimated to suffer from an autoimmune condition. They may be unsure if they qualify to donate blood, and unfortunately, the answer is a bit more complex than a simple yes or no. In many cases, having one of these conditions does not automatically disqualify you from ever donating blood, but the regulations may vary depending on your exact medical condition.
People with active infections of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Graves' disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and multiple sclerosis are disqualified from donating blood. It's due to factors such as their thyroid levels, medications required, and other unknown factors that can potentially impact their blood.
The medicines prescribed to you for your condition may play a role in determining where you’ll be able to donate blood. Depending on your health status, your doctor may advise against donating due to the increased risk of infection.
Can You Donate Plasma If You Have an Autoimmune Disease?
Plasma can be vital for treating rare and chronic diseases, and donors can even receive compensation for their donation because of how valuable it can be for specific treatments. To donate plasma, donors must pass a health screening and meet certain age and weight requirements.
Some individuals with autoimmune diseases may be able to donate their plasma, although their conditions do not permit them to donate blood.
This is because the antibodies produced in people with these conditions can be used for research as scientists look for cures. The antibodies from plasma donations from people with autoimmune conditions can also help treat other individuals suffering from that condition.
What’s the Difference Between Blood and Plasma Donations?
Donating plasma is different from donating blood in that during the plasma donation process, your plasma is separated from the blood through a centrifuge, and the blood is then returned to your body so that it can begin to replace the plasma that was removed.
In blood donations, blood banks receive all the components of whole blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma, and platelets), whereas plasma donations remove the plasma from your blood and return the rest to your body. Most people can typically donate blood every 56 days, but that number may vary depending on your blood drive’s policy and location.
Plasma can be donated much more frequently than blood, though the process can take significantly longer. Individuals who donate plasma can do so every 28 days, though the regulations can sometimes vary by state.
What Are the Risks of Donating Blood If You Have an Autoimmune Disease?
Some healthcare professionals may advise you to avoid donating blood even if you meet your blood bank’s requirements due to a potentially increased risk of infection.
People with autoimmune disorders may be more susceptible to issues or complications after donating blood. For example, individuals with lupus may have an increased risk of experiencing a flare-up of their condition after donating blood.
Donating blood is a safe procedure for most people, though some side effects such as nausea and light-headedness can sometimes occur. Individuals with autoimmune diseases should speak with their doctor to decide whether donating blood or plasma is safe for them, as some conditions may pose their own complications. You should also ensure you meet the general requirements for making a blood donation.
To stay on top of your health, medical professionals recommend doing regular lab tests to detect any possible conditions early and better understand your body and how it responds to certain lifestyle factors.
Why Blood Donation is so Important
Blood transfusions are needed more often than you think, as an estimated one in seven people entering a hospital will need a transfusion. As everyone has a particular blood type, some people can only receive certain types of blood in a transfusion, meaning that blood banks and hospitals need to collect as much of each type as possible.
The O blood type is most common, and individuals with this blood type are considered universal donors as anyone can receive this blood type in a transfusion. However, as this type of blood is in high demand, it’s often in short supply in medical centers. Type AB is considered the universal donor in plasma donors, and its donation is equally essential.
Individuals donating blood should take precautions before doing so, both for their own safety as well as for the safety of others.
For example, your doctor may advise you to regulate blood sugar as much as possible, avoid doing a hard workout before your donation and avoid drinking alcohol or smoking.
When it comes to donating blood, it's always best to check with a health provider whether you have a condition or not and whether it’s safe to donate based on that.
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Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian at Nutrisense, with a Masters in Dietetics from Stephen F. Austin State University. Originally from south GA, she got her undergrad degree from Texas Tech University. Before joining Nutrisense, she worked at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, for 4 years as a dietitian, counseling those living with HIV.