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Chemotherapy, radiation and some diseases such as aplastic anemia and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) can cause unsafe low levels of blood cells. Using donated blood, transfusions are a way to temporarily increase the number of blood cells. There are different types of blood transfusions to match the types of blood cells a patient may need.

Many patients get blood transfusions after a bone marrow or cord blood transplant. These could be transfusions of red blood cells, platelets, or rarely, white blood cells.

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.
  • White blood cells help fight infection.
  • Platelets help control bleeding.

Red blood cell transfusion

You may get a red blood cell transfusion for anemia, which is when you have too few red blood cells. To test for anemia, a doctor checks your hemoglobin level. Mild anemia may cause weakness and tiredness. In severe cases, it can cause severe weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness and a rapid heartbeat. Transfusions are usually used when your hemoglobin is severely low. Sometimes, instead of or in addition to a transfusion, doctors prescribe a red blood cell growth factor — a drug that helps your body make more red blood cells.

Platelet transfusion

You may get a platelet transfusion if you have too few platelets. Platelets prevent or stop bleeding and bruising. Doctors prescribe platelet transfusions to keep the platelet count at a safe level. They may prescribe a transfusion earlier if you are bleeding because of low platelet counts. Transfused platelets typically last only a few days in the bloodstream. After transplant, you might get platelet transfusions two or three times a week until your body begins making its own platelets.

White blood cell transfusion

White blood cell (granulocyte) transfusions are rare. This is because the granulocytes last only a few hours in the bloodstream. White blood cell transfusions can also cause fevers or infections. Instead, you may get a medication called a growth factor that helps the body make more white blood cells.

What to expect during transfusions

If you need a transfusion, you will get the blood cells through tubing connected to a needle in your vein or through your central line, if you have one. You will get the transfusion in a hospital or an outpatient clinic. A transfusion takes about two to three hours for each bag of blood cells.

For a red blood cell transfusion, the blood you get must match or be compatible with your blood type. For platelet transfusions, matching blood types is less important. Even so, you will usually get a matching blood type, especially if you may need many transfusions.

If you have had a reaction to previous transfusions, you will get medicine to help prevent another reaction. Otherwise, you will probably not get any medications with your transfusion.

Blood transfusion side effects and risks

Most patients do not have any side effects from blood transfusions. About 1-2% of transfusions may cause fever and chills or an allergic reaction, such as hives. If you have had these side effects during past transfusions, you will get medicine before your transfusion to help prevent any reaction.

If you get a lot of transfusions, your body may develop antibodies (proteins) that can react against donated blood cells so that transfusions do not work well. For example, the platelet count will not go up much after a platelet transfusion. If this happens, you may need to get blood cells that match you at a more detailed level than a simple blood type.

Talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about blood transfusions.