Being a Blood Donor in the UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Being a Blood Donor in the UK

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A lot of people seem to be scared of giving blood1, however donating really doesn't hurt that much - the worst part is usually pulling the plaster off afterwards! This Entry is designed to give information about the process in the UK2 and hopefully persuade people that it's not so bad after all and is really something worth your while to do.

What's involved?

When you turn up at the centre3 where the donor-session is being held, you will be given a number and a clipboard. You should read the contents of the clipboard very carefully, especially if it is your first session, as it tells you everything you need to know. Even if you have donated before, you should still read the information, as things may have changed since your last donation. There is also a form to fill in, although if you have given blood before you will probably have been sent a letter containing the same form, which you can fill in and bring with you to save time at the session.

Once you've read all the information, and filled in the form, you just have to sit and wait until your number is called. At this stage all that happens is a nurse will go through your form with you and check all your answers, to make sure you are able and suitable to give blood. They will put your information into a computer and send you to sit down again.

Your name will be called this time, and the nurse will use a small device with a needle in it to prick your finger. They will take a drop of blood, and test it for iron levels. If you don't pass this test you won't be allowed to donate, and you may be advised to see your doctor for further tests.

If everything has gone smoothly so far, your name will be called one more time. You will lie down on a bed, and a nurse will check your name and address while laying out all the equipment on a tray next to you, handing you a plastic cylinder to hold, and disinfecting your inner elbow4. A senior nurse or doctor will come along, and put the needle into your arm, while you squeeze and roll the plastic cylinder5. Then you just relax! There will be a nurse next to you to check that you are OK and to chat to you. You should keep rolling the cylinder in your hand to keep the blood flow going. When the bag is full6, you are advised to stay lying down for about five minutes (longer for your first donation) and then sit in the refreshments area for some tea, coffee or squash and a biscuit for another five minutes, to make sure you are OK to go home.

It normally takes about an hour from walking in the door to walking out again, depending on how quickly your blood flows, and how long the queues are. You can't feel the blood flowing out, although the tube does feel warm. You don't have to look at the blood, or your arm, you can look in the other direction if you like. However, you can look if you want to and the nurses are happy to answer any questions you might have about what's going on and what you can see happening.

You should drink plenty of (non-alcoholic) drinks in the few hours after the session, to replace the fluids lost. It can be a funny feeling, as you can drink a huge amount before needing the toilet after giving blood! You will have a pad of cotton wool on your arm, held down by sticky strips, which should be left on for a good few hours after the session.

Your blood group is checked each time you give blood, as it has been known for people to change blood group. In addition, if you have asked before you donate, an extra sample of blood can be taken for tissue-typing, so you can be added to the bone marrow donor register.

Who can give blood?

There obviously have to be some restrictions on who can give blood - some people would be adversely affected by the process, while others have blood that wouldn't be suitable to give to an ill person.

In order to give blood in the UK, you:

  • must be aged between 17 and 59 at the time of your first donation,
  • must weigh over 7st 12lb (50kg),
  • must be in good health (the end of a cold is OK),
  • must not have given blood in the last 16 weeks,
  • must not be pregnant, or have a baby less than nine months old,
  • must not be taking antibiotics, or have taken them within the last week,
  • must not have had jaundice, hepatitis, any piercings, tattoos, semi-permanent make-up, acupuncture, or a blood transfusion in the last 12 months,
  • must not have two close family members who have suffered with CJD,
  • must not have HIV, or think you may have HIV,
  • must not have, or be a carrier of, hepatitis,
  • must not be a man who has ever had oral or anal sex with another man, even if protection was used,
  • must not have ever received payment (money or drugs) for sex,
  • must not have ever been injected with drugs, including body-building drugs,
  • must not have had sex in the last 12 months with a man who has had oral or anal sex with another man.

It is unlikely you will be able to donate if you have visited certain countries recently, such as those where malaria is common.

There are some other conditions too, and you could pass all these conditions and still be refused at the discretion of the donation staff. Even if you are OK to donate, your blood could still be refused at a later stage, as it is tested for syphilis, hepatitis B, HIV, hepatitis C, human T-lymphotropic virus. Additional tests may also be carried out depending on your responses to questions on the form, for example, for malaria. You will be informed and advised if any of the tests come back positive. However, it isn't advisable to give blood purely for the tests. It wastes the time of the NBS (National Blood Service), and your GP should be able to advise you better on what to do if you think you may have come into contact with one of the above diseases. Another reason not to give blood just for the health check is that some diseases, like HIV, don't show up in the tests for up to a year after you contract them. Therefore if you give blood when you think you may have contracted HIV, you could be putting the recipient at risk.

Even if you fail some of the above criteria, it still may be worth going along to a session to see if you can donate. Every donor is looked at individually and, as long as you are completely honest with the staff, it may be possible for you to donate even if you thought you wouldn't be able to.


Most people give blood for no reward other than the satisfaction of helping people and saving lives. However there are rewards available. First is the free tea and biscuits, plus a sticker so you can tell the world how amazing you are. You also get a credit card-type card with your blood group and the number of donations you have given on it. Finally, if you give blood enough times, you may qualify for a special award such as a gold badge, pen and letter on your 50th donation.

1Probably not helped by a lot of the comedy based around blood-donating, such as the Hancock's Half Hour sketch.2In other countries, such as the USA, the way it works is slightly different.3It can be arranged to have a donor-session held at your place of work - talk to your boss about it if you are interested.4Generally, the blood will be taken from your left arm if you are right-handed, and vice versa.5In some areas, two needles are used, the first being to inject a local anaesthetic which makes the whole process even less painful.6Just under a pint (475ml) is taken, and your body replaces it quite quickly.

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