10 common barriers to donating blood and plasma, and how to get past them

June 9, 2023
Blood donor in donor chair holding a “My first donation” sign

Afraid of fainting? Think there are enough donors already? Donating blood and plasma may be easier, and more important, than you think.

It’s normal to be a little hesitant to donate blood or plasma (a component of blood) for the first time. Yet in their lifetime, 1 in every 2 people in Canada will either need blood components themselves or know someone who does, so every donation is precious.

Are any of these 10 things stopping you from donating blood or plasma? Let us help you get past it. Chances are, you’ll find donation easy and rewarding.

Barrier #1: I’m scared donating blood and plasma is painful.

When the needle is inserted you can expect to feel a little pinch. Pain beyond that is unusual. If it hurts, please speak up right away so we can help.

Three blood donors in NextGen Lifeline T-shirts show bandaged arms after blood donation
Mya Ellis, left, donated blood for the first time in the lead-up to a youth blood drive she organized in 2020 with fellow high schoolers Kate Straforelli (middle), Cassie Renaud (right) and Stefanie Robb. “I was a little uneasy at first because I’m kind of afraid of needles,” said Mya. “But it was not as bad as I thought and it turned out to be really worthwhile.”

We have welcomed many donors with a fear of needles to Canada’s Lifeline and helped them have a positive experience. You can even speak with a healthcare professional in advance about your concerns by calling us at 1 888 2 DONATE (1-888-236-6283).

You may find it helpful to bring a friend to your first appointment, or to have a volunteer accompany you through the process of donating for the first time. If a volunteer sounds helpful to you, just ask at the front desk when you arrive at the donor centre.

Learning in advance about the blood donation process or the plasma donation process may also help to put your mind at ease.

Barrier #2: I think there are already enough blood donors and plasma donors.

Sadly, this is far from true. The number of people who regularly donate is down significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While 1 in every 2 people in Canada are eligible to donate blood, plasma or platelets, just 1 in 81 do so. We need more than 100,000 new donors a year to keep Canada’s Lifeline strong!

Woman donating blood with another blood donor with bandaged arm next to her
Many first-time and returning blood donors participated in the Global Blood Heroes campaign in August 2022. They helped break a world record for blood donation.

And our donor base doesn’t just need to get bigger. It also needs to become more diverse. Did you know a patient’s life or health may depend on blood components from a donor of similar ethnic background(s)? Learn more about why we need a diverse donor base.

Barrier #3: I’m afraid I will faint if I donate blood or plasma.

Some donors do faint, but this happens only about once in 1000 donations. There are also a lot of things you can do to reduce your risk.

Get a full night’s sleep before your donation. Then on the day of your appointment, have a nutritious meal and drink plenty of fluids. You should also drink 500 mL of water or juice right before the donation and eat a salty snack. While donating, do any muscle tensing exercises that are recommended to you.

After the donation, have another drink and snack in the refreshment area and rest for 15 minutes. It’s also a good idea to keep hydrating throughout the day after your appointment.

Most faints occur during donation or immediately afterward. If you do faint, our staff are trained to help.

Man donating blood holding a Sikh Nation sign
Mandeep Tatla made his first blood donation as part of Sikh Nation, Canadian Blood Services’ largest Partners for Life group. His appointment was just days after disastrous flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., forced his family and many others to evacuate their homes in 2021.

Barrier #4: I worry that donating blood or plasma will deplete my health and energy.

Our donor eligibility criteria protect donors as well as patients. If we find you eligible to donate, you can feel confident that donating is safe for you.

Iron loss is a common concern that we take seriously. It’s why we check donors’ hemoglobin levels at every visit. As a donor, you can also track your hemoglobin levels over time in the GiveBlood app. The level of hemoglobin required to donate is well above the level that would suggest iron deficiency. In select frequent donors, we also test ferritin level, a test to identify and inform donors with low iron stores. Learn more about donor wellness and iron.

Some people may feel a little tired after donating, but extreme fatigue is unusual. Most people can resume normal activities after leaving the donor centre. We simply recommend you stay hydrated, avoid strenuous activity for six to eight hours, and avoid heavy lifting for 24 hours.

Woman wearing “Horns Rugby” T-shirt donating plasma
Keegan Brantner began donating plasma as a busy student and member of the Pronghorns women’s rugby team at the University of Lethbridge. “I was a bit nervous, as I was unsure of what to expect,” Keegan said. “But I went with several teammates who had donated plasma before, and they explained the process. My first donation went very well.”

Barrier #5: I’m afraid I’ll get an infection by donating blood or plasma.

Our staff are thoroughly trained and follow strict protocols, so the risk of any kind of infection from donating blood or plasma is extremely minimal. The needle we use is sterile, used only once and discarded, so you are never exposed to the blood of any other donor. Just before inserting the needle, we also use a disinfectant to clean that area. This is to prevent bacteria on your skin from getting into your bloodstream.

Barrier #6: I don’t think I am eligible to donate blood or plasma because I have tattoos.

Good news: if it’s been three months since your last tattoo, and you’re fully healed, you may be eligible to donate.

Blood donor doctor in blue scrubs with arms folded
Dr. Bourke Tillmann, an intensive care physician and trauma team leader in Toronto, has donated blood regularly for many years, including at a donation event early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Tattoos need not prevent you from donating blood or plasma, if it’s been three months since your last tattoo and you’re fully healed. 

Barrier #7: I don’t think I am eligible to donate blood or plasma because I use pot.

More good news: cannabis use doesn’t make you ineligible to donate blood or plasma, provided you are not intoxicated at your appointment (because that would prevent you from giving informed consent to donate).

Barrier #8: I don’t think I am eligible to donate blood or plasma because (insert reason here).

Please, check to be sure! You may be surprised. Even if you weren’t eligible in the past, you may learn you are eligible now because of a change in the criteria.

Did you know…

…there is no upper age limit for blood and plasma donation?
…many cancer survivors are eligible to donate blood and plasma?
…you may be able to donate plasma even if you travel regularly to places where medication to prevent malaria is recommended?
…most prescribed medications are not a barrier to blood or plasma donation?

Start with our two-minute eligibility quiz, or give us a call at 1 888 2 DONATE.

Plasma donor giving thumbs up while donating next to Canadian Blood Services employee
Ranjit Singh Panesar donated plasma for the first time at the opening of a new plasma donor centre in Brampton, Ont. “Because India is a malaria risk area and I travel there often, I become ineligible to donate blood for some time after I return,” said Ranjit. “But I can still donate plasma after travel to India.”

Barrier #9: I don’t have time to donate blood or plasma.

Are you sure? Donating blood typically takes about an hour from the time you arrive to the time you leave (with your tummy full of free snacks!). A plasma donation appointment may take a little longer, about 60-75 minutes (but please set aside 90 minutes for your first few, so there’s time for your questions and for staff to explain the process). You can save time at the donor centre by doing your donor questionnaire online in advance.

Blood donor looking at camera next to her husband donating blood
Dr. Siobhan Deshauer, aka Violin MD, donated blood for the first time with her husband, Dr. Mark Weatherall, for a segment called “What really happens to your blood?” on her YouTube channel. “I thought the donation process was going to take a lot longer, but once we got going, it only took six minutes to give a whole pint of blood,” she said.

Some donors think of donating as volunteer work. Viewed in that light, it’s a modest and flexible time commitment with a huge impact.

Does your employer have a program to honour employee volunteer hours with corporate gifts to charity? Some employers will honour time spent donating blood or plasma within such programs, and we make it easy for you to track your donation history in the GiveBlood app. You could even recommend your employer direct financial gifts to Canadian Blood Services (giving you a way to double your impact!).

Woman smiling with 1st time donor sticker
Jen McKay, who lived in Switzerland for five years, made her first blood donation in early 2022. She became eligible because of a change in donor eligibility criteria related to vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease).

Barrier #10: I doubt one donor can make much of an impact.

The components of even one blood donation can help several different patients. You could also discover that your donations have a special role in the blood system. For example, donors with the O-negative blood type are critical in emergencies and frequently in demand. You might even find out you have a rare blood type that’s just the right match for a patient with special transfusion needs.

Triplet sisters showing bandaged arms after first blood donation
Triplets Veronica Cook (left), Samantha Cook (centre) and Jeanne Cook (right) donated blood for the first time in celebration of their 17th birthday. People may be eligible to donate blood as early as age 17, and there is no upper age limit. The sisters all have O-negative blood, which is critical in emergencies.

As for plasma, the medications made from this blood component are the only treatment for some life-threatening illnesses, and demand for those medications is growing by leaps and bounds. Regular plasma donors, who may donate as often as once a week, are making all the difference for patients and their families. They’re so important to securing Canada’s supply of these essential treatments.

Plasma donor looking at her young son while she donates plasma
Shannon Morrison donated plasma for the first time at the opening of our plasma donor centre in Sudbury. Her son Heydan, right, relies on a medication made from plasma.

You can check out our Stories page to read about people who have been helped by donations of blood and plasma.

Want to boost your impact further? You can donate as a team through our Partners for Life program. Donovan McCoy, the Hockey Gives Blood player ambassador in the photo at the top of this article, rallied his Peterborough Petes teammates to donate blood with him last February (and also to join the stem cell registry).

Questions? Don’t hesitate to call us at 1 888 2 DONATE (1-888-236-6283). Together, we are Canada’s Lifeline.

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