While whole blood donation is what most people think of when donating blood. It is certainly the most common, however there are actually four different types of blood donations to be aware of. Each type is needed by recipients to treat different types of diseases and conditions.

Whole Blood Donation

Whole blood donation consists of one pint (about 475 mL) of blood which is then separated into its essential components (red cells, plasma, and platelets) for transfusion. All blood types are needed for whole blood donation – which includes types A, A-, B, B-, AB, AB-, O, and O-. 

Type O donors are usually in high demand for whole blood donation because type O is considered a universal donor type, meaning that typically anyone can receive O blood, regardless of their blood type. This is especially important during emergencies and trauma situations, when the need for blood is dire but the patient’s type may be unknown. 

The entire whole blood donation process takes approximately 1 hour to complete, including check-in and aftercare. Most individuals can donate whole blood every 56 days, or 3-4 times per year. 

Platelet Donation

Platelets are crucial cells that help blood clot and support the immune system. Without sufficient platelets, patients can die from blood loss very quickly. During a platelet donation, platelets are removed from the blood in a concentrated amount – up to six times the number of platelets contained in a whole blood donation! The remaining fluids plasma, and red blood cells are returned to the body. 

This technique is possible because platelets regenerate more quickly and can be donated every 7 days. On the other hand, they only have a shelf life of 7 days – so more frequent donations are constantly needed. Because the process is more complex, platelet donations typically take 1.5 to 2 hours to complete, depending on the donor. 

Plasma Donation

Plasma is the liquid part of the blood that carries all of the types of blood cells and other components around the body via blood vessels. It transports nutrients, helps remove waste products, and also carries medications, hormones, and other essential substances. Similar to the platelet donation process, plasma donations return the red blood cells and platelets back to you, removing only the plasma.

Plasma donors provide three times the amount of plasma that is contained in a whole blood donation. 

Plasma donations take about 1.5 hours to complete the whole process. Individuals can safely donate plasma about every 28 days. If whole blood or platelets are donated during that time, this number may vary. 

Some centers pay for plasma donations, while others work solely on a volunteer basis. Paid centers may involve long wait times, which is important to be aware of when planning.

Double Red Cell Donation

Just like it sounds, those who give a double red cell donation provide the equivalent of two units of red blood cells in one appointment. This technique is especially helpful for blood types that are constantly in demand, such as type O. 

Because this process removes more than the standard number of red blood cells, it can take the body longer to “bounce back”. For this reason, the FDA has established more stringent height and weight requirements for donors – males should be at least 5’1” and weigh a minimum of 130 lbs. Females should be at least 5’5” and weight at least 150 lbs. to donate. A double red cell donation takes a bit longer to complete, about 80 minutes. Because of the longer recovery time needed, double red cells can only be donated every 112 days. 

Blood donation centers carefully assess their needs and attempt to make accurate predictions about the population needs for blood product transfusions. By using a range of different blood products, they can best fill certain specific platelet or plasma needs while allocating whole blood for other needs. 

Karen Stockdale, RN, has more than 20 years experience in healthcare. She is also a medical and technical writer and editor.