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Techly Explains: Why are there limits on donating blood?

My father has donated blood to the Red Cross every twelve weeks, like clockwork, for the past 40-odd years. So I can only imagine how many people are walking around out there with a little bit of him in their veins.

I used to go along and donate with him, and we would do it every twelve weeks because that was how often you could donate blood. But then I had to stop donating blood for a while after each time I got any of my piercings or tattoos. Why is that?

Of course, the answer is pretty simple: safety – both for you, and for the people receiving your blood — but when does each limit apply, and why?

Let’s take a look at some of the more common limits that the Australian Red Cross has in place.

Between donations
How long? 12 weeks.
Who does this protect? You.
Why? This one is pretty obvious – you only have a finite amount of blood, and you need that to live (that’s why the other people want your blood, after all).

It takes roughly 10 weeks for you to fully restore your lost blood after each donation, so by waiting 12 weeks, you should well and truly be back to full capacity by the time you sit in the chair.

Note that this is only for whole blood – platelets and plasma can be donated more often.

After getting a tattoo or piercing
How long? 4 months
Who does this protect? The receiver.
Why? This used to be 12 months, but was reduced to 4 months in the past couple of years as tattooing and piercing procedures became more stringent, and screening methods became more sound.

If there were a guarantee all your body modification procedures were conducted above board with sterilised, single-use equipment, this restriction wouldn’t be necessary. However, this restriction is in place to protect the receiver of your blood, just in case.

Bloodborne diseases, like hepatitis, can be transmitted simply by being pricked with a needle which was used on someone with the disease (a needle-stick). So if your tattoo artist or piercer plays fast and loose with their equipment, they could unknowingly pass these conditions on to you.

The four month restriction period is therefore in place to minimise the risk of this happening. The idea being that if you have somehow contracted a bloodborne illness from this method, it will manifest within this time period — and you will, naturally, go and see a doctor, rather than trying to donate blood.

After travelling to certain countries
How long? Varies, depending on country.
Who does this protect? The receiver.
Why? This one varies, depending on which county you went to. You can actually check out the Red Cross’s travel page to see exactly how long you have to wait after travelling before you can donate.

As with tattoos and piercings, this restriction is in place to prevent the receiver of your blood from any diseases you may have inadvertently contracted during your travels, such as malaria, HIV and Zika.

If you lived in the UK for 6 or more months between 1980 and 1996
How long? Forever.
Who does this protect? The receiver.
Why? This is an interesting one, as it isn’t actually a time limit for how long you need to wait before you can donate – this one means that you straight-up cannot donate blood.

This is due to the risk of transmitting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD, aka mad cow disease), anyone who lived in the UK for 6 or more months during this time is not able to donate blood in Australia at all, until a more reliable screening method is discovered.

Interestingly, the UK does not eliminate anyone who was there during these years, and still accepts blood from donors. If they didn’t accept these donors, they would be have a dangerously low number of eligible donors — more dangerous that the risk of transmitting vCJD would be.

Thankfully, Australia is able to turn away these potential donors without risking becoming dangerously low on blood supplies.

More information can be found on the Australian Red Cross website, and if you are thinking about donating, I highly encourage you do so. Donating blood is one of the most rewarding and compassionate things you can do — over the course of your lifetime, you could help hundreds or even thousands of people.

About the author

Tyler is currently based in Canberra, though he rejects this reality and enjoys immersing himself in games, technology, and comics. You can usually catch him trying to find that last shard/flag/feather.
Twitter: @FinalAlchemist

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