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Becoming a blood donor is one of the greatest services you can offer mankind.  It can mean the difference between life and death.

Here’s what you need to know about being a blood donor.

Blood types

Your blood type is determined by which antigens and antibodies are, or are not, present. These are allergens on the red blood cells and in the plasma.

If you receive blood that is different to yours, you can have an allergic response to the antigens, so it is  important to know your blood type. People with O blood are universal red cell donors, as their red blood cells have no antigens so cannot trigger an allergic response. Those with AB+ blood are universal plasma donors.

Know your type

It’s important to know your blood type because it saves time in an emergency. Hospitals will usually test your blood to determine your type, but if you have it written down with other emergency information, doctors can treat you faster.

Studies show that people with certain blood types are more predisposed to certain illnesses. Types AB, A and B, for example, are at an increased risk of heart disease. Knowing your blood type won’t decrease the risk, but it can help you look out for symptoms and encourage you to lead a healthier lifestyle by exercising and following a healthy diet.

Many people, including children with cancer and blood disorders, depend on blood donations to survive. Some blood types are also in high demand, so knowing your type could mean you are able to save more lives. A spokesperson for the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) says people belonging to A and AB blood groups are encouraged to become platelet donors.

Donating 101

Who can donate?

A blood donor must be between the ages of 16 and 65, weigh more than 50kg and practise safe sex.

How does it work?

When donating blood, one pint of blood (about 480ml) is taken, which is the legal limit. The needles and other equipment are sterile and used only once. Each pint of blood is tested for HIV, hepatitis B and C and syphilis.

How often can you donate?

A regular donor is someone who donates at least three times a year. Once you have donated, you need to wait at least 56 days before donating again.

How long does blood last?

Red blood cells can last for up to 42 days, the SANBS says, and plasma, if frozen, can last for up to three years. But platelets only last for five days.

Can I donate blood for my own use?

Once you have donated blood, it is collected and used for patients. However, autologous and designated donation can be arranged through your doctor. Autologous donation lets you donate your own blood prior to surgery, while designated donation is when you donate blood for a friend or family member’s use, provided you have the same blood type. Because special collection, storage and testing are required, this can be costly and time-consuming.

Who needs your blood?

The SANBS says that donated blood typically goes to the following patients:

  • People who have had an accident and have lost blood
  • Pregnant women who have haemorrhaged because of complications
  • People undergoing surgery
  • Children and adults with cancer and leukaemia, and those who need bone marrow transplants.

The receiving end

Most people donate whole blood, which can be split into three parts:

Red blood cells

These transport oxygen to the lungs. If someone can’t produce enough red blood cells, they will be anaemic and will need red blood cell transfusions.


These are cell fragments that circulate in the blood. When you injure yourself, platelets collect at the site and create a plug to stop bleeding. “Cancer patients may need platelet transfusions if their bone marrow is not making enough, which can happen when bone marrow cells are damaged by chemo or radiation therapy, or when they are crowded out of the bone marrow by cancer cells,” the SANBS advises.


This is often given to patients who are bleeding because their blood is not clotting properly. Plasma is a fluid that carries other cells around the body.

National blood services

The Western Cape Blood Service (WCBS) provides blood services to the Western Cape. The WCBS app provides registered users with real-time information, indicating what blood type is in short supply and directing donors to their nearest mobile or static blood donation clinics. Contact: 021 507 6300/080 062 5663 or visit

The SANBS caters to South Africa, excluding the Western Cape. Contact: 011 761 9000 or visit Both are non-profit, independent organisations.

Tamlyn Vincent