15 Questions About Donating Blood, Answered

iStock/mediaphotos
iStock/mediaphotos

You've rolled up your sleeve, faced a fear of needles, and risked passing out mid-donation. Congrats, you're one of the roughly 6.8 million people who donate blood each year! But even if you've shimmied onto that cot and happily accepted your post-blood draw cookie, you still may have questions about the process. We've answered some of the big ones.

1. Where does the donated blood go?

When you needle up for the American Red Cross, they collect roughly one pint of blood and several test tubes—all of which are stored in iced coolers until they can be transported to an official Red Cross center. From there, the samples are spun in centrifuges to separate the red cells, platelets, and plasma, and the tubes are sent out for testing at one of three national labs.

Samples that come back disease-free are then stored at the center—red cells last in a 6 ºC refrigerator for up to 42 days; platelets remain at room temperature in agitators up to five days; plasma can be frozen for up to a year—until they are shipped to a hospital for use.

2. What do they test for?

Your vials undergo a dozen tests designed to both establish blood type and to weed out donations laced with infectious diseases, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and syphilis. If your sample tests positive for something, your donation will be trashed, but on the upside they'll reach out and let you know about your diagnosis and offer counseling with a trained professional.

3. What exactly are platelets, anyway?

Platelets are the tiny, disc-shaped particles inside your blood that help it to clot. They're needed for patients with diseases such as aplastic anemia and leukemia that hamper the body's ability to clot and for patients who are undergoing major surgeries. Platelets are separated from your red blood cells after you donate and can only be stored up to five days. Thus, maintaining a large enough supply can be an issue.

4. How much blood is needed to save a life?

It depends on the situation. According to the American Red Cross, the average red blood cell transfusion is roughly 3 pints, but a single car accident victim could need up to 100 pints.

5. Are certain blood types more valuable than others?

bags of blood
iStock/vladm

Yes. O positive is the most common blood type in America—belonging to about 38 percent of the population—and thus, the most likely to be needed for a transfusion. (Type A positive ranks second at 34 percent of the population.) O negative blood types—that's about 7 percent of people—are considered the universal donor because their blood can be given to anyone. The least common blood type? AB negative—belonging to just 1 percent of people.

6. How many people donate each year?

Not enough. The American Red Cross estimates that less than 38 percent of the United States population is eligible to donate blood at any given moment—but less than 10 percent of those people do. Each year, roughly 6.8 million donors give 13.6 million units of blood. That may sound like a lot, but approximately 36,000 units are needed across the U.S. each day and because of the short shelf-life, it's difficult to build up an inventory of blood if a lot is needed quickly.

7. Who isn't eligible to donate?

Some states allow 16-year-olds to donate with parental consent, but most require blood givers to be at least 17. You also have to weigh a minimum of 110 pounds and be in good general health. (If you have a cold, flu, or fever, you will be turned away.) Being a world traveler could also be an issue. Those who have recently visited countries where diseases such as malaria or the Zika virus are common are required to wait a set amount of time before offering up a vein. Piercings and tattoos can also temporarily prevent you from donating depending on how long ago you acquired them.

8. Is there any way to speed up the process?

While the Red Cross estimates donating blood can take more than an hour—from the time you fill out your paperwork until you accept the post-donation cookie—you can cut out some time with RapidPass. Users complete forms online, then print them off and bring them to the donation site. For a true walk-in, walk-out experience you can also schedule an appointment. Once you're all set up, the actual blood draw only takes about 10 minutes.

9. How does my body replace the blood lost?

The average adult has between 10 and 12 pints of blood in their body. Since your bone marrow churns out a constant supply of red cells, plasma, and platelets, the plasma you give is replaced within the first 24 hours.

10. Wait, then why do I have to wait 56 days between donations?

getting a bandage after donating blood
iStock/FotoDuets

While the plasma is replenished quickly, it can take four to six weeks for your body to manufacture the red blood cells that are lost. If you're only donating platelets, which your body replaces within a day, you can give again after a week. However, you're restricted to only 24 total platelet donations a year.

11. Do I need to do anything special after donating?

The American Red Cross suggests replacing the lost iron with foods such as spinach, beans, and red meat as well as drinking an extra 4 to 8 ounces of non-alcoholic liquid. They also advise against doing heavy lifting and recommend keeping your bandage on for at least five hours. (Bonus: that makes it easier to brag to your friends about your largesse!)

12. Why do they ask for my ethnicity?

According to the New York Blood Center, knowing your race makes it easier to match your blood with a needy recipient. "Blood types and antigens are inherited, just like eye and hair color," reads an entry on their website. "Searching for very precise transfusion matches can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, so it makes sense to begin with donors of the same ethnic or racial background as the transfusion recipient." A recent piece in The New York Times concurs: "While no one is suggesting forced segregation of blood bags, it's now scientifically established that blood can be racially or ethnically specific."

13. Can you really make money donating blood?

You can score between $20 and $45 for donating plasma at one of the 530 licensed and IQPP certified plasma collection centers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The process is similar to donating blood, except that once the whole blood is drawn, the plasma is separated out and the rest of the blood is returned to your body. (The whole procedure takes between 90 minutes and two hours.) However, this plasma usually doesn't go straight to disease-stricken donees. Instead, it's given to pharmaceutical companies who use it to create medicine for a range of conditions.

14. Can I donate blood to myself?

Yes, but it takes some legwork. You can do what's called an autologous donation—where you donate blood to be used on yourself during a surgery or planned medical procedure—but you'll need a prescription from your doctor.

15. Is there any substitute for blood?

Not yet. However the American Red Cross says they are diligent about tracking research that might help identify an alternative. "The Red Cross actively follows blood substitute research," reads a note on their site, "and works closely with other organizations that develop new transfusion alternatives."

This story was updated in 2019.

When Pokémon Sent Hundreds of Viewers to the Hospital

Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images

By the time the 38th episode of the animated children’s series Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters, aired in Japan, it was a bona fide sensation, drawing roughly 4 million viewers weekly. One survey estimated that 55 percent of schoolchildren in Tokyo's Kawasaki school district followed the series. The show—which began airing April 1, 1997, and focused on the adventures of Ash and affable monsters like Pikachu in their attempt to collect one creature from each species to train for combat—was also a comic, a Nintendo video game, a trading card series, and more. The devoted fandom would soon spread to the United States.

But then something peculiar happened—so peculiar that it become the subject of medical journal research. The Pokémon episode that aired at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 16, 1997 depicted a cataclysmic explosion between thunderbolts thrown by Pikachu and a “vaccine bomb.” Red and blue flashing lights began to pulse onscreen. Though the sequence lasted only a few seconds, hundreds of children were stricken by an immediate and visceral response that ranged from headaches and dizziness to full-blown seizures. Japanese hospitals found themselves treating viewers for epileptic symptoms.

This wave of deleterious effects became international news. Never before had a television program had such a direct and immediate health consequence on its audience. Some people initially dismissed the whole thing as a hoax or possibly some kind of mass hysteria, but the physical reactions were genuine. What had made this episode of Pokémon so dangerous—even among those viewers not diagnosed with epilepsy? And could it happen again?

 

The potential for a television program to trigger seizures is rooted in how it displays light. Light displayed at frequencies between 10 and 30 hertz, or the number of cycles per second, is known to induce symptoms for a percentage of the population susceptible to them. The color red is also stimulating. When light is shifting from color to black and back again, nerve cells in the brain can fire electrical impulses rapidly, leading to convulsions. This is often referred to as photosensitive epilepsy, where certain visual stimuli can cause a seizure.

As a result, there have been a handful of programs that have prompted medical concern for viewers. In 1993, the UK had three reported seizures as a result of a commercial for pot noodles that used flickering light, prompting the advertiser to pull it from the air. A 2012 animation for the Olympics also triggered adverse effects for a reported 18 viewers. People don’t necessarily need to have epilepsy in order to be affected; they might have an undiagnosed condition, remaining symptom-free until viewing such footage. Others might react even in the absence of epilepsy, suffering headaches or other symptoms as a result of being overly sensitive to flickering light.

Mew and Mewtwo are pictured in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

In Japanese animation, the strobe effect was obviously not intended to cause distress. Animators considered it a technique, which they dubbed paka paka, and which was intended to communicate to the viewer a sequence of high intensity. In “Denno Shenshi Porigon” (“Electric Soldier Porygon”), the Pokémon episode that became infamous, Pikachu’s attempt to free a monster named Porygon from a digital prison results in his being attacked by computer virus missiles. Throwing his thunderbolt attack, he intercepts the missiles and creates a paka paka explosion augmented by another technique known as flash, which accentuates bright and flashing lights. The frames in the sequence were alternating at 12 hertz—well within the window to cause problems.

The scene, which occurred roughly 21 minutes into the episode, is what prompted individuals with photosensitive epilepsy to react. Statistically, it made sense. It’s believed that one in every 4000 people are vulnerable to the condition. With 4 million people watching, 1000 of them could conceivably have been struck with symptoms. A reported 618 people were hospitalized for treatment. Some even wound up in intensive care with breathing problems.

That such a sizable number were in need of attention did not go unnoticed, particularly since it was the result of a children’s show. The story was covered by the late-evening newscasts in Japan, some of which inexplicably decided to air footage of the episode, which provoked more photosensitive reactions. By Wednesday morning, the Pokémon incident was the talk of Japanese schoolyards, with kids being asked if they had been struck down by the cartoon.

 

It took science some time to figure out why this sequence had been so particularly consequential, even among those who weren’t epileptic. As it turned out, the typical living environment in some areas of Japan was partly to blame. In small living rooms often dominated by large television screens, kids were confronted with a towering and flickering image. Some even sat close to the screens, compounding the potentially negative effects of the sequence. Children are also more susceptible to epileptic seizures, and kids were Pokémon's target audience. The length of the sequence, which was roughly six seconds, and its heavy emphasis on the color red may have also played a part.

Hospitals who were sent questionnaires by researchers reported that many of the children treated were not diagnosed with epilepsy, though the incident seemed to precede a diagnosis. One letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 stated that of 91 patients evaluated for Pokémon-induced symptoms, 25 had another convulsion within five years. Of 13 patients who were treated and had no history of epilepsy, 10 wound up being diagnosed eventually.

Pikachu (L) and Ash (R) appear in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

Animators were flummoxed. The paka paka and flash sequences had been used before, though likely not in a program approaching the viewership of Pokémon. Police launched an investigation to make sure Television Tokyo, the broadcast network, was not somehow negligent in airing the program. They weren’t, though the consequence would be the same either way: No one would ever take the risk of airing “Denno Shenshi Porigon” again.

 

The episode was pulled from the series and was never rebroadcast, save for the news clips. The show itself was taken off the air in Japan entirely, not returning until April 1998 and carrying cautionary warnings. (When Pokémon was imported to America in 1999, the episode was predictably left out.) New broadcast standards in Japan were implemented that mandated the color red could not flash more than three times per second, with no more than five flashes per second of any color, and no flash more than two seconds in length.

That wasn’t quite the end of seizure concerns in popular culture. In 2018, some theaters put up signs cautioning viewers that flashing lights in The Incredibles 2 could be a problem for those with photosensitive epilepsy. Disney later reedited the film in the UK so it complied with the Harding Box test, which sets standards on flash and flicker rates for light and can reduce—though never eliminate—the potential for problems. The company is also issuing a warning for the upcoming December 20 release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, stating the film has “several sequences” utilizing flashing lights.

Owing to the relative rarity of these events, it’s likely productions will continue to use flashing images, though producers of Pokémon would probably prefer to forget the 1997 incident ever happened. The episode has never again been cited and the character of Porygon disappeared, save for one fleeting mention in Japan when Hulu kept a preview for the episode at the conclusion of the previous installment. While it doesn’t contain any of the incendiary sequence, it might be the only surviving footage of the day television really was bad for kids.

These Microwavable Plush Animals Are a Charming Way to Keep Warm and Help Reduce Stress

Intelex / Amazon
Intelex / Amazon

There are plenty of ways to stay warm as winter bears down, but one of the easiest solutions is to simply cuddle with one of these microwavable plush animals from Intelex. Aptly called Warmies, there's a whole line to choose from, including bears, bunnies, sloths, pink hippos, and more. Each Warmie is available on Amazon for $17–$20.

Unlike similar products, Warmies don't have a removable heat pack inside; instead, they are filled with natural grains that heat up when you put them in the microwave. What really separates Warmies from the rest, though, is that they contain dried French lavender, which is not only soothing to smell, but can potentially act as a natural sleep aid, according to research.

Microwavable animals from Intelex.
Intelex/Amazon

While Warmies are safe for all ages (make sure kids are doing so under proper adult supervision), they can help adults looking to soothe minor aches, stress, and other ailments. Each time they're warmed up to specifications, expect the heat to last for around 40 to 45 minutes.

And if needed, you can put your Warmie in the freezer for two to three hours (in a sealed freezer bag) and use it as an ice pack.

Humans aren’t the only ones who need some added warmth and stress reduction every now and then. Check out these heated plush toys for dogs.

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