Blood Product Transfusion

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is a blood product transfusion?

Blood product transfusion is a general name for a treatment that gives you a component or product of blood. Blood products include red blood cells, plasma, and platelets. A blood product transfusion treats bleeding conditions caused by a lack of blood products, such as anemia (low red blood cell count) and hemophilia. Blood product transfusions involve infusing a blood product through an IV line or a central venous catheter. 

Blood product transfusion is generally safe, but it does have some risks and potential complications. Blood product transfusion is only one method to treat many diseases, disorders and conditions. You may have less invasive or risky treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all of your treatment choices if there is time before having a blood product transfusion.  

Types of blood product transfusions

Blood is made up of different components or products. These products are separated and transfused individually, depending on a patient’s diagnosis and other factors. Whole blood is rarely transfused. Blood products include:

  • Cryoprecipitate, which contains certain clotting factors. Cryoprecipitate treats bleeding disorders including hemophilia and von Willebrand disease.

  • Red blood cells (RBCs), which are the oxygen-carrying cells that give blood its red color. RBCs treat anemia (low RBC count) and blood loss.

  • Plasma, which is the water component of blood. Plasma contains proteins that are important for proper blood clotting and fighting infection. Plasma treats serious burns, liver failure, or clotting problems including disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).

  • Platelets, which are a type of blood cell that are important for proper blood clotting. Platelets treat conditions that occur when the bone marrow doses not make enough of them. This includes thrombocytopenia and side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer.

  • White blood cells (WBCs), which fight infection. WBC transfusions are rare. Today, dotors use medications for patients that have low levels of WBCs, such as cancer patients.

Blood donors often provide blood products. You can sometimes use your own blood for a transfusion (autologous blood transfusion). This may be an option for a planned surgery or treatment that requires a transfusion. You donate your own blood ahead of time, and it is saved specifically for you. 
Healthcare providers sometimes collect a patient’s own blood during heavy bleeding and transfuse it immediately. This is done during surgery or after a traumatic injury.

Why is a blood product transfusion used? 

A blood product transfusion provides missing blood components. This occurs when your body can't make them or has lost them from heavy bleeding or other problems. Blood product transfusions increase blood volume, replace important clotting factors, and/or improve your blood’s ability to carry oxygen. 

Blood product transfusions treat the following conditions: 

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count) due to conditions such as kidney disease, cancer and cancer treatments, sickle cell disease, vitamin B-12 deficiency, iron deficiency, and thalassemia

  • Bleeding disorders and conditions including von Willebrand disease, hemophilia, factor XIII deficiency, thrombocytopenia, disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), and the adverse effects of blood thinning medications that prevent normal clotting

  • Cancer and cancer treatments including leukemia, digestive system cancers, cancer surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and bone marrow transplant

  • Liver disease that reduces the liver’s ability to make some blood components

  • Obstetric emergencies including abruptio placentae and hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count syndrome

  • Sepsis that is resistant to antibiotics. Sepsis is a severe, whole-body reaction to infection.

  • Surgery including open heart, abdominal, and vascular surgeries that cause serious blood loss

  • Trauma including serious burns, injuries to blood vessels, and abdominal, chest or pelvic organ injuries that cause severe fluid or blood loss

Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion if there is time before deciding on a blood product transfusion.

Who performs a blood product transfusion?

Nurses often perform blood product transfusions. Doctors and physicians’ assistants (PAs) sometimes perform transfusions as well. The following doctor specialists order or perform blood product transfusions:

  • Critical care medicine doctors specialize in the diagnosis and management of life threatening conditions.

  • Emergency medicine doctors and pediatric emergency medicine doctors specialize in the rapidly diagnosing and treating acute or sudden illnesses, conditions, injuries, and complications of chronic diseases.

  • Hematologists are internists or pediatricians with specialty training in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of diseases and disorders of the blood and blood-forming tissues, such as the bone marrow and spleen.

  • Surgeons specialize in surgical treatments. Examples include general surgeons and thoracic (chest) surgeons.

How is a blood product transfusion given?

You blood product transfusion will be performed in a hospital, doctor’s office, or outpatient clinic setting. Your doctor will determine the type of blood product to use depending on your diagnosis, age and general health. 

Blood product transfusions generally take one to four hours. The procedure varies with different blood products, but generally  includes these steps:

  1. You will have a blood test to determine your blood type and other factors.

  2. A nurse or other provider will start an IV line, usually in a large vein in your arm. In some cases, a doctor or other advanced provider will insert a special IV line into a blood vessel in the chest or neck (central venous catheter).

  3. Your provider will double-check important information with another provider at the bedside. This includes your name, blood type, and other information that is on both your wristband and the blood product label. This is a precaution to ensure that you receive the exact blood product that is safe for you.

  4. You will receive blankets as needed to prevent shivering from feeling cold. Shivering could be interpreted as a sign of a reaction.

  5. Your provider will clean the access port in the IV line, then connect the blood product and adjust the rate at which it flows into your body. Blood products flow through special tubing and a filter.

  6. Your provider will watch you closely for signs of a reaction. This includes closely monitoring your temperature and vital signs before, during and after the transfusion.

Will I feel pain with a blood product transfusion?

Your comfort and relaxation is important to you and your care team. You may feel a brief pinch or prick during IV insertion. Take a few long, deep breaths to help yourself relax. Tell your care team if any discomfort does not pass quickly.

You should not feel pain or discomfort during the blood product transfusion. Tell your care team right away if you:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 15
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