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Are there risks associated with donating or receiving blood? The blood banking community can assure the Australian public that it is safe to donate blood. A new, sterile needle and blood collection set is used for each donation procedure. Therefore, you cannot get infected with viruses, such as HIV or hepatitis, by donating blood.

In addition, donors are screened before giving blood to ensure that they are in good health and have no complications that could cause them harm by donating. Mild side-effects from the procedure that a donor might experience include stinging during insertion of the needle, upset stomach, dizziness, and possibly a small amount of bruising appearing later around where the blood was taken. In very rare cases, a donor may faint, have muscle spasms, or suffer nerve damage.

There are some risks with receiving blood transfusions. Some people fear that they may contract an infectious disease. However, donated blood is carefully screened for transmittable diseases, as noted earlier in this article. The Blood Service publishes figures for the risk of infection from transfusion which are updated each year. The risk is now extremely low (about 1 in 2 million units transfused for hepatitis C, HTLV, HIV and slightly greater at 1 in 300,000 for hepatitis B [2014 figures]). Of greater concern is ABO incompatibility and transfusion reactions.

ABO incompatibility occurs when a patient receives donor blood with a different and incompatible blood group to their own; for example a group O patient receiving group A, or group B blood. The recipient of the blood transfusion could have an immune reaction against the foreign blood cells that can be very dangerous, even life-threatening.

Besides ABO incompatibility, there are other incompatibilities that can cause transfusion reactions. Antigens occur on other blood components, including white blood cells, platelets, and plasma proteins. The immune system will attack and destroy the donated blood cells, with serious side-effects for the patient.

There are several types of transfusion reactions, such as allergic and febrile (characterized by fever). Treatment will depend on the type of reaction and the patient’s symptoms (for example, antihistamines may be used to reduce rash and itching from allergic reactions while paracetamol may be prescribed to reduce fever).

Many transfusion reactions go undetected and, therefore, unreported. However, the reported rate of transfusion reactions is on the order of 1 per 1,000 components or 1 in 400 people. Nearly all of these are non-infectious complications and include  volume overload, and febrile or allergic reactions.