Blood Transfusion Risks - PBM

For each blood component received, the current risk of some viral infections is estimated to be:

  • One in 7,800,000 for HIV.
  • One in 153,000 for Hepatitis B (liver infection).
  • One in 2,300,000 for Hepatitis C (liver infection).
  • One in < 1,000,000 for West Nile (very low risk)

The current risk of some non-viral infection is estimated to be:

  • One in 7000 delayed hemolysis (Hemolysis is when your red cells are destroyed)
  • One in 100 for allergic reactions.
  • One in 300 for febrile (increased temperature) reactions.

Receiving blood components or products in Canada is very safe.

Serious complications are rare but may be life threatening. These reactions may be mild or severe:

  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Human error
  • Bacterial contamination
  • Transfusion-Related Acute Lung Injury (an immune reaction that affects a person’s lungs)
  • Temporary decreased ability to fight infections
  • Fluid overload

Source: Callum, et al, (2011) Bloody easy 3: blood transfusion, blood alternatives and transfusion reactions 3rd ed. ORBCON.

The risks involved in NOT getting a transfusion

If you lose too many red blood cells, your body does not get enough oxygen. This causes risk to vital organs such as the brain or heart. You may need a transfusion to prevent this type of damage. The timing and reason for needing a transfusion is different from person to person. The decision to give you blood will be based on your condition at the time. Our team of experts will weigh the risks and benefits before using blood for any reason.

The risks of becoming ill due to a transfusion are very small; however, like many medical treatments, blood can never be completely risk free. You must decide in discussions with your doctor if the risks associated with having a blood transfusion are higher than the possible result of not receiving a transfusion. In an emergency, your doctor will decide whether to transfuse and what type of blood component or product to use.

A comparison of transfusion risks to the risks of dying from other common causes

  • Annual risk of death in a motor vehicle crash one in 10,000 / year
  • Death from electrocution - one chance in 1,000,000 / year
  • Death from being struck by lightning  - one chance in 5,000,000 / year
  • Death from anesthesia in a fit patient - one chance in 200,000 / year
  • Death from pneumonia or influenza - one chance in 3,000 / year
  • Death from lung cancer after smoking one pack a day for 30 years - one chance in 10 / year
  • Death from stroke within 30 days of cardiac surgery - one chance in 60 / year

This means that, in comparison to the risk of getting a serious disease or dying from a transfusion, a person has:

  • As much chance of dying from electrocution
  • Six times more chance of drowning
  • 29 times more chance of dying in a car accident
  • 67 times more chance of dying from pneumonia or influenza
  • 400 times more chance of dying from cancer and
  • 667 times more chance of dying from heart disease.

Can I refuse a transfusion?

A competent person is entitled to refuse or stop a treatment. If you do not want a transfusion for any reason including religious beliefs, you must inform your doctor. However, there are risks associated with refusal. Ask your doctor. More complete information on these choices is available from your doctor.

Are there any alternatives to having a blood transfusion?

If you require elective surgery (your surgery is scheduled well in advance), your surgeon, Perioperative Blood Management Service and family doctor will work together to ensure that you are as healthy as possible. When getting ready for an operation, the need for blood transfusion can be decreased or avoided by careful planning. Using blood management strategies does not rule out the possibility of needing a blood transfusion. The stronger that you are going into surgery, the less likely it is that you will need a blood transfusion.

Some of the techniques and alternatives that can be used to decrease or eliminate the need for blood transfusion before and during planned surgery.

How will I know if I received a transfusion?

You will receive notification when you are discharged from the hospital. It may be a letter or card that states that while you were in the hospital you received blood component(s) and or blood product(s). This letter or card helps the hospitals and Canadian Blood Services track where, when and what blood components or products you received. Retain this document for your personal health information.

I never knew that blood was so important!

How do I become a blood donor?

If you would like to donate blood, please contact Canadian Blood Services at 1-888-2-DONATE (1-888-236-6283).