Giving Blood For the First Time? Here's Everything You Need to Know

I'm terrified of needles. When I was a little kid, I would scream so loud any time I had to get my vaccinations, the other kids in the pediatrician's office assumed I was being subjected to some type of medieval torture. So when my high school offered a blood drive, I balked. I wasn't about to subject my arm to more needles.

It wasn't until I got to college and joined a sorority, where we were highly encouraged to participate in the blood donation aspects of our Homecoming and Greek Week festivities, that I mustered up the courage to do it. It eased my nerves to have friends to donate with, but I had no idea what to expect. I ate an iron-filled meal beforehand, drank a bunch of water, and hoped for the best.

When I first donated, I squeezed the nurse's hand so tight, I thought she would be leaving with broken appendages. But I survived, and you know what? It wasn't even that bad. I could barely feel the needle going in, and if I didn't look at the bag getting filled with my blood, I could pretend like nothing was happening. Now, I make an effort to give blood whenever possible.

According to the American Red Cross, someone in the US needs blood every two seconds, and one donation can potentially save up to three lives. If you're thinking about donating blood (and you should!) or you're just curious about what it entails, read on. We spoke with Patty Corvaia, APR, external communications manager at American Red Cross Blood Services, who outlined everything you need to know before giving blood and what you should do before, during, and after. Read on to get prepared to give back to your community and potentially save lives.

What to Know Before You Donate
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

What to Know Before You Donate

It may seem like there are a lot of rules about giving blood. Can you give blood if you are on certain medications? What about tattoos? Are there certain countries you can't travel to? In short: yes, there are many stipulations. For a full list of eligibility criteria, make sure you check out this eligibility guide from the American Red Cross. When you go to donate blood, you will be screened (confidentially) for illnesses, medications, travel history, and other lifestyle factors.

When You Shouldn't Give Blood

  • If you have a sexually transmitted disease. You must wait 12 months after treatment for syphilis or gonorrhea. Chlamydia, venereal warts (HPV), or genital herpes are not a cause for deferral if you are feeling healthy and well and meet all other eligibility requirements.
  • If you've traveled to certain countries. If you've traveled outside of the US or Canada, you'll be asked about it during the time of your donation.
  • If you have certain chronic and acute illnesses (cold or flu). Read more about tips for giving blood during flu season.
  • If you take certain medications. Check the eligibility criteria guide for a full list.
  • If you have low iron.
  • If you are pregnant. You must wait six weeks after giving birth to give blood.
  • If you got a tattoo within the last 12 months if it was in the following states: District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, or Wyoming.

What to Eat

Patty recommends eating a hearty meal before your donation that includes iron-rich foods. Think: red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, spinach, kale, or iron-fortified cereals. She also said to drink at least 16 ounces of water or other nonalcoholic fluids before your donation.

What to Bring and Wear

When you register, you will complete a registration form and be asked to show a donor card, driver's license, or two other forms of ID. Make sure you wear a t-shirt or a top with sleeves that can be rolled up easily. You might want to bring a book or podcast to listen to.

Knowing Your Blood Type

Patty said that while many people think they need to know their blood type before they donate, that's simply not the case. "We need donors of all blood types to ensure a sufficient supply for patients," she told POPSUGAR. You can get notified of your blood type after your donation when you get your blood donor card or by creating a profile through the Red Cross Blood Donor App.

All blood types are needed to donate, but type O positive and O negative blood donors are especially needed since type O positive is the most transfused blood type and can be transfused to Rh-positive patients of any blood type. "Type O negative is the universal blood type and what emergency room personnel reach for when there is no time to determine the blood type of patients in the most serious situations," Patty said.

What to Expect When You Give Blood
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What to Expect When You Give Blood

A whole blood donation appointment will take about an hour, but the actual act of giving blood only takes about eight to 10 minutes. After you register and answer questions during the confidential screening, you will have your temperature, hemoglobin, blood pressure, and pulse checked.

Once you are approved to donate blood, you will be instructed to sit up with your feet elevated and your arm stretched out. Your arm will be cleaned, and yes, stuck with a (brand-new, sterile) needle, but it won't be painful — it feels more like an uncomfortable pinch, and only for a couple of seconds. You will continue to squeeze a stress ball while a bag collects your blood.

Patty recommends bringing your favorite book or movie or some music to help you relax while your blood is being collected. You will donate a unit of blood (500 milliliters), or about a pint. Your body has an average of nine to 12 pints of blood in it, and it continues to pump blood after donation; your body will replenish the lost unit within hours. When the collection is over, a nurse will remove the needle and place a bandage.

What to Do Afterwards
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What to Do Afterwards

Yay, you did it! Time to reward yourself with a snack and a bunch of fluids. The donation center will have food for you to nosh on when you're done (something like an apple, chips, pretzels, or cookies) and bottles of water and juice to replenish fluids. Drink at least an extra four glasses (32 ounces total) of nonalcoholic beverages after your donation.

"Blood contains many substances, including red blood cells full of iron, white blood cells, plasma, and platelets, plus water and various nutrients and minerals, which is why it's critical that donors replenish their bodies with postdonation snacks and fluids," Patty said.

Don't lift anything heavy or do any strenuous activity afterwards, and it's best not to exercise for at least 24 hours after giving blood. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded at all, stop what you're doing and lie down until you feel better, Patty advised. And keep the bandage on for a few hours; clean around the area with soap and water to prevent a skin rash.

Now it's time to brag to your friends that you donated blood and saved a couple of lives! Just don't hit up happy hour — you have to wait at least 24 hours after your donation to drink alcohol.