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Having worked in the blood and plasma industries for several years, I often get asked the question, “What’s the difference between donating blood versus donating plasma?”  The answer to this inquiry is detailed here. 

First things first:  What is plasma?

We all know what blood is, but very few people actually understand what plasma is.  We are familiar with blood because we can easily see it when we are wounded.  Plasma, however, is never seen by the average person in daily life, because it is a part of the blood tissue (and yes, blood is a tissue).  Only after centrifuging the blood into its separate components can we see the clear straw-yellow liquid that comprises blood plasma.  Plasma is primarily 90% water, but contains many of the blood clotting factors and various proteins that are critical to the immune system.  Since these proteins and clotting factors cannot be produced synthetically in a lab, live donors are required to manufacture therapeutics that support treatment plans for people with primary immune deficiencies, hemophilia, or several other diseases.  Your body naturally replenishes its supply of blood plasma daily, with a complete cycle time of around 48 hours.   Therefore, you are not at risk of losing your own clotting or immune functions by donating your plasma.

How does it compare to donating blood?

Donating plasma is similar to donating blood in a few ways, but the two differ vastly as far as the procedures are concerned.  Donating blood consists of an initial venipuncture, and the donor simply bleeds into a collection bag.  Once full, the unit of blood is sealed and forwarded on for further processing.  Donating plasma, on the other hand, has one striking difference:  you get your blood back.  Rather, your concentrated red blood cells, sans plasma, are returned to you throughout the process.  The procedure starts with a venipuncture, and then proceeds into a collectionphase, where your blood is extracted into a medical device (which generally functions to centrifuge the plasma from the blood – each plasma company uses a different version of this machine).  The blood is extracted in small amounts, usually around 200 – 300 ml per cycle, of which 100 – 150 ml of plasma is donated.  When one collection phase is complete, the concentrated blood cells are returned to you in the reinfusion phase.  You do not feel the reinfusion phase; it is more of a resting period in between collection phases.  The total donation will consist of 6 – 10 of these cycles on average, depending on the brand of plasmapheresis machine used.  In the end, a donor can expect to donate between 690 – 880 ml of plasma, based upon their body weight.  Often, saline is given at the end of the procedure to replenish the fluids lost, since plasma is mostly water content. 

How often can I donate?

The FDA states that donating blood plasma is safe, and donations can occur twice a week (specifically, one cannot donate more than two times in a seven day period).  If you are donating blood, on the other hand, you can only donate once every two months.  It also helps to be well hydrated throughout the week, maintain a healthy diet, and be in good health when donating plasma. 

Another point of difference:  Compensation

Donating blood is performed simply for the good feelings it provides of helping others in need.  However, with the exception of the American Red Cross, the majority of blood banks do sell your blood to hospitals and labs for profit.  However, they do indeed give you cookies and juice afterward.  Fair trade, right?

When you donate plasma, you will be compensated for your time.  Allow me to clarify this point:  you are not selling your plasma.  Plasma companies compensate you for your time, as it can take up to two hours for the entire process.  Your plasma will be tested and then further processed into therapeutics for patients whose lives depend on them.  The demand for plasma is far from met at any given time.  Blood products expire and are destroyed if not sold to hospitals in a timely manner.  Plasma has a ten year shelf life, and works wonders to stop profuse bleeding when a car crash victim is rushed to the hospital, among its various other wonderful applications. 

However, both industries are absolutely necessary in the healthcare field.  We need both blood and plasma donors, but you cannot donate both concurrently.  For this reason, you need to consider the advantages and disadvantages carefully when deciding what kind of donor you wish to be.   More people donate blood due to the fact that more people understand the process – it’s simple.  However, donating plasma is just as simple from a donor perspective, and the plasma you donate will help to meet the daily demand for patients whose lives depend on plasma products.  Through reading this article, I hope you’ve gained a better understanding of the process of donating plasma and will consider contacting a plasma donation facility near you to get started as a new plasma donor.

You really are saving lives in more ways than you know. 

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