What To Know Before You Donate Blood, According To The Red Cross

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Blood donations are super necessary to maintain healthcare services, and provide people life-saving care — but they need to be replenished constantly, since blood cells only have a 42-day shelf life. So if you've decided to donate blood for the first time, congratulations! But there are some things everyone should know before donating blood, especially if you're a first timer. You may find that it's a little bit more complicated than just showing up.

“Donating blood is a simple and easy way to make a life-saving difference for someone in need. For just an hour of your time, donors can save up to three lives," Cliff Numark, Senior Vice President of the American Red Cross, tells Bustle.

Blood donations help somebody once every 2 seconds, according to the Red Cross, and many of us will know somebody who needs blood at some point in their lives. When you're gearing up to donate, though, don't believe myths like "everybody faints" (it's actually quite rare) or "very few people are eligible" (around 38 percent of the population can give blood, according to the Red Cross). And it's particularly crucial right now. “During the months of May and June the Red Cross collected 56,000 fewer blood donations. This, coupled with a tough July 4 holiday week for collections, resulted in a significant drawn down of the Red Cross blood supply," the Red Cross tells Bustle. "In order to meet the needs of hospitals and patients across the country the Red Cross must collect 13,000 donations each day." Here are the things you should expect when you walk confidently through the doors to donate.

1You Should Prep By Drinking And Eating Properly

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Donating should be a planned process, rather than an impulsive decision. Before the day of your donation, the Red Cross advises that you eat iron-rich foods like meat, eggs, kale, and certain fruits, to make sure that your blood is at its healthiest. And dehydration isn't going to help the donation procedure, so make sure you drink a bit more than you usually would before you go in to donate — not so much that you can't function or need to pee constantly, but enough that you feel comfortable and hydrated.

Blood is one thing. You can't donate platelets at a standard blood drive; if you want to donate those, it means some more preparation, like an appointment, a three-hour window to do the donation, and abstaining from aspirin for 48 hours beforehand.

2You Will Need Photo ID

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You can donate blood every 56 days and need to be over 17 (or, in some states, 16 with parental permission) to be eligible to donate. When you show up at a donation center, you'll need to have photo ID to confirm your data — either one primary form of data, like a drivers' license, or two secondary forms, like a student ID, a credit card or a birth certificate.

3You'll Have A Health Screening First

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You don't just walk in to donate once your identity is confirmed. Donors need to be tested to make sure that they're healthy and eligible to donate, and that means going through a general health check that tracks things like age, current medications and diseases, your health history, and anything else that might raise a red flag. In some places this can be done online, while elsewhere it'll be conducted in a private interview with a nurse.

4You'll Have Your Hemoglobin Levels Tested

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Not only do you need to be checked in general, your blood needs to be tested before it can be declared good for donation. That means a small pinprick test, typically on your finger, to assess your hemoglobin levels, the amount of iron-carrying proteins currently in your red blood cells. High hemoglobin count is good, but low count may mean you get what's called a "deferred donation," where they ask you to come back when your hemoglobin count is a bit higher. Low hemoglobin could mean you're anemic or don't have enough iron in your diet, but it's not possible for the donation center to assess this, so you'll have to go to the doctor to test it.

5You Might Not Be Able To Donate

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There are some restrictions around who can and cannot donate. If you've recently been traveling in a country where there's been malaria, or if you have an infection, or you recently received a vaccination, you'll likely be told to defer your donation for a set period. If you are a man who has sex with men, or you've had sex with a man who has sex with men, you will be asked to wait 12 months before donating. Similarly, if you have had a tattoo in a state that doesn't regulate tattoo parlors, you will be asked to wait 12 months before donating. A full list of eligibility requirements is available at the Red Cross' website.

If you've experienced anything you think might affect the health of your blood, tell the nurses or mention it in the health questionnaire. It's important that you be honest before donating.

6It Doesn't Take Very Long

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After you've cleared all those hurdles, blood donation, once the needle is in your arm, doesn't take very long. A bag of blood, around 470mL, should take about 10 minutes at most to be produced. The heart pumps blood efficiently (though if you're queasy about blood you don't have to watch this happening). That 470mL is only about 13 percent of all the blood in your body, and it'll be replaced in a pretty short period.

7Afterwards, You Should Plan To Chill

Post-donation, you'll be encouraged to rest for about 10 to 15 minutes, drink a lot, and eat at least one snack. If you're feeling faint, tell somebody; they don't want to send you back outside if your blood pressure isn't up to it. But the body bounces back from donation very quickly, which is why it's regarded as safe. The most important thing is to monitor the donation arm; leave the bandaid on for at least 6 hours, don't lift anything heavy for the rest of the day and avoid hot baths until the next day.

Donating blood is a mostly painless thing to do that can save a lot of lives. If you're able to, consider making an appointment with the Red Cross, or if you're not, you can help organize a blood drive in your community.