Who can donate blood—and who can’t

Avatar By | January 6, 2020
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

Donating blood means giving the gift of life, yet despite the ongoing need for blood donations, only 3 out of every 100 people are blood donors. With patients in the U.S. requiring blood every two seconds, the nation’s blood banks are constantly seeking volunteer donors in order to maintain a readily available blood supply.

Why donate blood?

“A single blood donation can save the lives of up to three people,” says Ross Coyle, spokesperson for the Stanford Blood Center, an independent community blood center in Palo Alto, California. “Blood donations are typically down during the winter and summer months, due to weather and vacations, yet the need for blood donations is a year-round issue.”

In addition to doing something good for others, donating blood also offers positive health benefits to donors. Studies have shown that donating blood can improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of a heart attack. 

What is donated blood used for?

John Cunha, DO, an emergency medicine physician at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says blood donations are critical for many reasons and needed for both emergencies and long-term treatments.

“Donated blood is used for trauma patients such as those injured in natural disasters or mass tragedies, cancer patients who require blood transfusions and those who lose blood during major surgeries,” Dr. Cunha says. “You never know when you or a loved one might need a blood donation.”

Can I donate blood?

What are the requirements for donating blood?

All blood banks maintain eligibility requirements for donors in order to protect both the blood donor and recipient. Coyle says those who are interested in becoming a blood donor should consider the following, and advises contacting your local blood bank if you have additional questions:

Age: Blood donors must be at least 17 years old (or 16 in some states with a signed parental consent form). Coyle says there’s no upper age limit to donating blood as long as you’re in good health.

Weight: Blood donors should be in good health and weigh 110 pounds in order to be eligible. There is no upper weight limit.

What will disqualify you from giving blood?

There aren’t a lot of requirements around who can donate blood, but there are many conditions that can prevent you from donating.

Anemia: Experts say low hemoglobin levels (less than 12.5 g/dL), which can indicate low iron levels, are the number one reason people are unable to donate blood. If you have a low hemoglobin level, the blood bank may suggest consulting with your doctor on how to raise your levels and then returning in the future to donate blood.

Fear: Some attribute their reluctance to donating blood to anxieties about the process such as a needle phobia or fear of fainting. Coyle says donating blood is safe and only takes 5-10 minutes. The majority of donors feel fine afterward and have no side effects. 

Pregnancy: Women cannot donate blood during their pregnancy or for six weeks after giving birth.

LGBTQ Donors: The current FDA policy says gay and bisexual men can’t donate blood unless they have been sexually abstinent for the past 12 months. The Red Cross is currently working to change the deferral to three months.

Tattoos and piercings: In most states, if a tattoo or ear/body piercing was done by a licensed facility and professional in your state using sterile needles and non-reused ink, there is no deferral period. In states that don’t regulate tattoo facilities, there may be a deferment period. Check with your local blood bank for more info.

International travel: Coyle says those who have traveled or lived in another country, may receive a deferral period based on whether they might have been exposed to an emerging infectious disease. For example, having the Ebola virus makes candidates ineligible to donate blood. Exposure to mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue or chikungunya, may result in a deferment until symptoms resolve. 

In addition, people who have traveled or lived in countries where malaria transmission occurs, will also receive a deferment of 1-3 years.

Medications: If you’re taking certain prescriptions such as blood thinners, antibiotics, medications for multiple sclerosis and cancer, and other health conditions, you might receive a deferral from a blood bank ranging from a week to several months. 

Certain health conditions: Patients currently undergoing cancer treatment, or who had hepatitis/jaundice after the age of 11, a cold or flu within the last two days, or a blood transfusion within the past year are not eligible to donate blood. In addition, some forms of heart and lung disease, neurological diseases, Hepatitis B and C, HIV infection (AIDS), or other sexually-transmitted diseases will also prevent a person from donating blood

And, if donating blood is your favorite good deed, be aware of the waiting period. You should wait eight weeks between blood donations.