Donate Platelets and Help Save a Life

Someone in the United States needs platelets every 15 seconds, according to the American Red Cross, and you have those in your body right now. If you’re looking for an easy way to help another person, consider donating platelets.

“You can potentially save a life,” says Troy Dang, medical laboratory supervisor of the UNC Blood Donation Center. “People will often donate again once they realize the process is not scary and is so rewarding.”

Curious about platelet donation? Dang explains everything you need to know.

What are platelets, and who needs them?

Your blood is primarily composed of red blood cells and plasma, with a small amount of white blood cells and platelets. Platelets help to form clots to control bleeding. They are continually made in the bone marrow.

“By far, the biggest patient population for donated platelets is cancer patients,” Dang says. “When you’re undergoing chemotherapy, blood cell production is suppressed, so you’re at risk for spontaneous bleeding.”

Burn and trauma victims, premature babies, people with bleeding disorders, and people undergoing major surgeries also might require platelet transfusions.

Platelets must be used within five days of collection, so there is a constant demand for donations.

How are platelets collected?

If you’ve ever participated in a blood drive, you probably made a whole blood donation. A phlebotomist or other healthcare professional inserts a needle into a vein in your arm and draws about a pint of blood, including red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma and platelets, which are separated in a laboratory. Although whole blood donations are vital to helping people who need blood transfusions due to surgery, injury or illness, they don’t yield enough platelets for people who need them, since platelets make up such a small percentage of the blood.

“It takes six whole blood donations to make one therapeutic dose of platelets,” Dang says.

You can donate a greater amount of platelets—or any component of the blood, such as plasma—through a process known as apheresis.

“When the donor is hooked up to an apheresis machine, the whole blood is separated into components,” Dang says. “We can extract the platelets and return the rest of the blood to the donor.”

What is the platelet donation process?

Platelet donation takes longer than whole blood donation because of the time needed for apheresis. The UNC Blood Donation Center tells donors to plan for their appointments to last two hours, though sometimes it can be shorter.

Two days before your donation, you should avoid aspirin, which thins the blood. The day before and day of your donation, you should drink lots of water, which increases blood flow and helps the staff more easily find a vein. Donors are advised to eat a meal within the four hours before their donation.

As with whole blood donation, the platelet donation process starts with a screening to check your blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and hemoglobin, and a staff member confirms your eligibility to donate.

The process of being connected to an apheresis machine, which spins and separates the blood, feels like a whole blood donation.

“We use a smaller needle than is used for a whole blood donation, but there’s the same sensation in the arm,” Dang says. “You’ll feel a pinch, but then it’s comfortable. There is a tendency to feel a little cool because of an anticoagulant that’s used, so we have heating pads and blankets at every chair.”

Apheresis takes between 45 and 90 minutes; many donation centers have televisions at each donor’s chair to help pass the time. Dang also encourages donors to make platelet donation a social activity, particularly if you’re nervous about needles.

“Going through a new experience is always easier with someone else,” he says. “Bring a friend or family member, and you’ll have someone there to talk to and for reassurance.”

After donating whole blood, you’re typically asked to remain for a short period of observation, but Dang says that’s not necessary with platelet donation because your energy-rich red blood cells are returned to you.

“You’re usually not as fatigued as you might be after a whole blood donation,” Dang says. “You shouldn’t engage in strenuous exercise for the rest of the day, but you can resume normal activities directly after.”

In the weeks after a platelet donation, donors receive an email with information about who received a transfusion with their platelets, letting them know that they helped, say, a teenage girl with leukemia or a man in his 50s who had surgery.

“People know that giving blood helps members of their community, but you can really understand it when you know a few specifics,” Dang says. “Some donors have told us that they’ve saved those emails and have donated again because of them.”

Who is eligible to donate platelets?

The Food and Drug Administration’s policies for eligibility are the same for all potential donors, whether they’re donating whole blood or platelets.

In most states, you must be 17 years old to donate blood or platelets; in North Carolina, 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds can donate with parental permission. You must weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good general health.

You may be temporarily deferred from donating platelets if you just started certain medications, recently received certain vaccines, got an ear or body piercing, or got a tattoo in certain states. You also have to wait to donate if you had sex with a new partner or multiple partners and had anal sex within three months, regardless of sex, gender or sexual orientation. You’re not eligible to donate while you’re pregnant or if you’ve had a blood cancer.

Is the platelet donation process safe?

Platelet donation is safe for both donors and recipients. Needles to draw blood are used only once, and all blood is tested for diseases to make sure it’s safe for transfusion.

Apheresis is overseen by medical staff who monitor donors for adverse reactions. Dang says the most common reaction is a mild response to an anticoagulant that is used in the separation process, some of which goes back into the donor when blood is returned to the body.

“Some people feel a tingling, usually in the lips,” Dang says. “It’s a reaction to calcium deficiency in the body, so if symptoms progress, we have antacids for people to take.”

How often can you donate platelets?

You can donate platelets 24 times in a 12-month period. If you donate a single unit of platelets, you’ll be asked to wait 48 hours before donating again. Some donors can donate two to three units of platelets at a time, depending on their height and weight and the concentration of platelets in their blood; these donors are asked to wait seven days before donating again.

“You can donate platelets more frequently than whole blood because your body replaces the platelets more quickly than red blood cells,” Dang says. “Some people just feel called to platelet donation, maybe because they have someone in their lives who needed platelets.”

If you have questions about your eligibility to donate blood or platelets, contact a donation center or talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.