Transfusion therapy is used to replenish a low supply of one or more blood constituents within the body. The two main types of transfusion therapy are those that transfer whole blood and those that transfer just one element of the blood. These could include red blood cells, platelets or plasma. The second type of transfusion therapy is more common, because many patients only require an infusion of one part of the blood to resolve their medical issues.
Blood is made up of several different constituents, each with a vital function. Red blood cells deliver oxygen to all the organs and tissue in the body. Platelets prevent people from bleeding out due to minor injuries; they rush to damaged areas to form clots. Plasma is the liquid portion of the blood, and it performs many functions, including maintaining adequate blood volume, transporting nutrients, and balancing electrolytes. The type of transfusion therapy given depends on the needs of recipients.
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Whole blood transfusions were once the only transfusion treatment options available, until scientists developed a technique to isolate individual components in the blood. Now, they are relatively uncommon, as transfusion therapy that transfers only one element of the blood at a time is less likely to cause a reaction. Whole blood transfusions are still used in cases of massive blood loss resulting from accidents or other traumas.
Red blood cell transfusion therapy is often used in patients suffering from a low red blood cell count due to medical conditions, like anemia, or because of certain treatments, such as chemotherapy. Platelet therapy is used when uncontrollable bleeding occurs, or in patients with conditions that cause low platelet counts, such as leukemia. Plasma therapy can be used to increase clotting factors as well as to help restore blood volume.
During transfusion therapy, a needle is used to insert an intravenous (IV) line into one of the recipient’s blood vessels. The IV line is attached to a bag containing the whole blood or blood component required. The fluid slowly drips through the IV line and into the veins of the recipient. The entire process takes between one and four hours, during which time the recipient is carefully monitored for signs of a reaction.
While receiving blood is usually safe, some patients have a “transfusion reaction,” which can include symptoms such as headaches, fevers, muscle aches, and itchiness or rash at the site of the IV injection. Reactions are typically mild, but in some cases they can become life threatening. During transfusion therapy, a nurse monitors the vital signs of the recipient very closely, usually at 15-minute intervals. Reactions are less common in those receiving their own blood, so surgeons often recommend donating blood prior to a risky surgery, which can be stored for later use should the need arise.