Donating plasma is a selfless act that can help save lives. Plasma contains proteins that help clot blood and fight infections, making it a vital component in many lifesaving medical treatments. However, some people may be concerned that donating plasma could make them sick. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the potential side effects and risks of plasma donation and how to stay healthy while giving the gift of plasma.
What is Plasma and Why is it Needed?
Plasma is the largest component of blood, making up about 55% of total blood volume. It is a light yellow liquid consisting mostly of water, proteins, salts, and enzymes. Plasma performs many crucial functions, including:
- Transporting nutrients, hormones, and proteins throughout the body
- Removing waste and toxins from tissues
- Maintaining blood pressure and volume
- Clotting blood to prevent excessive bleeding
- Fighting infections by producing antibodies
Plasma contains unique proteins not found anywhere else in the body. These plasma proteins are used to create medical treatments for people with serious or life-threatening illnesses. Here are just a few examples:
- Immunoglobulins: Used to treat immune deficiencies and autoimmune disorders
- Clotting factors: Used to treat bleeding disorders like hemophilia
- Albumin: Used to treat severe burn victims and shock
- Hyperimmune globulins: Used to treat rabies, tetanus, and hepatitis B
The only source of these plasma proteins is from human plasma donors. Plasma donation provides the raw material to manufacture these lifesaving therapies. That’s why plasma donations are so vitally important.
Is Donating Plasma Safe?
Donating plasma using the process called plasmapheresis is generally considered quite safe. However, as with any medical procedure, there can be some side effects and risks. Let’s look at the plasma donation process first to understand where potential complications may arise.
The Plasma Donation Process
Donating plasma is different than giving whole blood. With plasma donation, your blood is drawn into an automated machine that separates the plasma from the other blood components. Here are the basic steps:
- Medical screening: Potential donors complete a questionnaire and mini-physical to ensure they are eligible to donate plasma.
- IV insertion: A sterile needle is inserted into your arm vein and connected to plastic tubing.
- Blood draw: Your blood is drawn into the plasmapheresis machine, where it is centrifuged to separate the plasma.
- Return cycle: The red cells, platelets, and saline solution are returned to your body through the same IV line.
- Disconnection: Once enough plasma has been collected, the IV line is removed and a bandage applied.
This process allows you to safely donate plasma frequently, while keeping the other blood components in your body. Now let’s look at the potential side effects of plasma donation.
Common Side Effects of Donating Plasma
While considered safe, donating plasma can sometimes cause side effects ranging from mild to more serious. Being aware of the potential side effects can help you take precautions to stay safe and healthy.
Mild Side Effects
Most side effects of plasma donation are mild and temporary. Common minor side effects include:
- Dehydration: Since plasma is mostly water, donating can lead to fluid loss and dehydration. Drinking extra fluids before and after donating helps minimize this effect.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness: Temporary dizziness is common after donating plasma due to the fluid loss. Staying hydrated and not leaping up too quickly after donating can prevent this.
- Nausea: Some people may feel nauseated when seeing blood drawn or as a reaction to the anticoagulant fluid. Let technicians know if you feel nauseated during the process.
- Chills: You may feel chilled during or after donation as your body temperature adjusts. Bringing a sweater can make you more comfortable.
- Tingling: The anticoagulant fluid used in plasmapheresis can cause tingling, especially around the lips and fingers. This resolves quickly when the process is complete.
- Fatigue: Plasma donation can leave you feeling tired afterward. Be sure to allow time for rest and recovery.
- Bruising or discomfort: The needle insertion site may remain tender for a day or two. Using a cold compress can relieve post-donation discomfort.
More Serious Side Effects
While less common, some more serious side effects are possible with plasma donation:
- Fainting: Some people may faint during or after donating plasma. This can result from being nervous about needles or experiencing a sudden drop in blood pressure. Fainting is more likely if you are dehydrated or have not eaten prior to donating.
- Allergic reaction: Very rarely, a person can have an allergic reaction to the anticoagulant fluid used in the plasmapheresis machine. Mild itching, rash, or hives may occur. More severe reactions like wheezing and difficulty breathing are extremely rare but require prompt medical care.
- Infection: Anytime the skin is broken with a needle, a slight infection risk exists. However, using sterile disposable needles makes this highly unlikely. Any signs of infection like redness, swelling, pus, or fever should be evaluated by a doctor.
- Nerve damage: The IV needle could hit a nerve, causing temporary numbness or tingling down the arm. While uncomfortable, this usually resolves fully within a few weeks.
- Clotting: Rarely, a blood clot may form in the IV tubing during donation. The anticoagulant fluid minimizes this risk. Any clotting is immediately detected by the machine and addressed.
- Citrate reaction: Citrate is used to prevent clotting of your blood in the machine. In very rare cases, low calcium levels caused by citrate can lead to symptoms like muscle spasms, tremors, or tingling around the mouth.
Long-Term Effects on Health
Some people worry that frequent plasma donations might cause long-term health issues over time. However, current research indicates there are no major lasting health effects associated with repeat plasma donations when proper procedures are followed.
Here’s what the research shows about potential long-term impacts:
- Protein levels: Plasma protein levels decrease slightly after donation but return to normal within 48-72 hours. There are no cumulative effects on protein levels in regular donors.
- Iron stores: Each donation removes a small amount of iron from the body. However, healthy adults replace this iron through their diet. Studies of frequent plasma donors show no negative impacts related to iron levels.
- Kidney function: Kidney function can decrease slightly for a day or two after donating plasma. However, no lasting reduction in kidney function has been found even with very frequent plasma donations.
- Bone density: An early study raised concerns that citrate anticoagulant may leach calcium from bones. However, multiple recent studies using modern donation techniques found absolutely no effects on bone mineral density in plasma donors.
By following proper screening and procedures, donating plasma appears quite safe with no lasting health consequences for healthy adults. However, individuals with pre-existing medical conditions or very low body weight should check with their doctor before becoming plasma donors.
Tips for a Safe and Healthy Plasma Donation
While serious risks are minimal, you can take simple precautions to make plasma donation easy and problem-free:
✔ Stay hydrated – Drink extra water before and after donating to avoid dehydration.
✔ Eat iron-rich foods – Replace iron lost during your donation through foods like red meat, spinach, beans, etc.
✔ Get adequate protein – Eat high protein foods like meat, eggs, dairy, etc. to replace plasma proteins.
✔ Eat a nutritious meal – Never donate on an empty stomach. Eat a balanced meal 1-2 hours beforehand.
✔ Avoid caffeine – Caffeine can contribute to dizziness or fainting.
✔ Stop smoking– Smoking causes carbon monoxide buildup in blood and reduces plasma protein levels.
✔ Use compression – Apply pressure to the donation site for 5-10 minutes afterwards to prevent bleeding and bruising.
✔ Get up slowly – After donating, sit for ~15 minutes and get up slowly to prevent lightheadedness.
✔ Rest up – Take it easy after donating and plan for some extra rest time.
✔ Stay warm – Bring a jacket or blanket if you tend to get cold during donations.
✔ Speak up about symptoms – Notify staff immediately if you feel faint, have tingling/numbness, etc. Stopping early is an option.
✔ Limit alcohol – Avoid alcohol intake for 8-12 hours prior to donating plasma.
By taking a few simple precautions, plasma donation is extremely safe for healthy individuals. The small risks are far outweighed by the benefits of helping save lives!