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When Teens Give Blood

If your 16- or 17-year-old asked for permission to donate blood, what would you say?

In light of dwindling pools of eligible donors -- only about 38 percent of the adult population is able to give blood -- the American Red Cross is hoping more teens will donate. Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, allow 16-year-olds to donate with a parent's consent (in D.C., you can give at age 17 without parental consent); kids that age give about 8 percent of all the whole blood donated to the Red Cross.

I'd be proud if one of my kids wanted to give blood. It can be a great and character-building experience, as this recent National Public Radio story about teens giving blood attests.

But a study in the current Journal of the American Medical Association gives me at least momentary pause. According the the research, 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely than those over 20 or even 18- and 19-year-olds to have adverse reactions after giving blood, ranging from brief lightheadedness to full-out fainting.

The study is quick to point out that the vast majority of people, kids included, who give blood do just fine. And most of the adverse events teen donors experience are mild and fleeting.

But sometimes they're serious enough to warrant medical attention outside the blood bank. In the study of 145,678 kids ages 16 and 17 who donated whole blood to the Red Cross, 86 experienced "medically relevant" events, most commonly falling down and injuring themselves after losing consciousness. Their injuries included concussions, lacerations requiring stitches, dental injuries and a broken jaw.


And, the study notes, teens who have a bad time of it the first time they give blood often opt not to donate again. So a scary experience early on might end up contributing to the blood supply's further shrinkage.

The Red Cross offers some tips for helping your kid stay on his feet after giving blood, such as getting a good night's sleep, eating a nutritious meal before donating, and drinking a few extra glasses of water in the days prior to donation.

(While you make up your mind about your kid's giving blood, why not plan your next donation? Find an upcoming blood drive here.)

Have you -- or your kid -- ever had a bad experience with giving blood? And did that keep you from giving again?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 26, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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To me, the worst part is the occasional "digging" for the vein, and then having to go to the other arm for a viable tap. Some of these phlebotomists must have trained in Transylvania! But the good news is that when the multiple holes make me woozy, the ice pack behind the neck brings me right back!

Posted by: Apostrophe | May 26, 2008 7:46 AM | Report abuse

I first gave blood on my 17th birthday (I'm now 22) and have never felt more than the slightest lightheadedness. I attribute this to the following: I weigh enough (155 pounds), I have a meal and drink water beforehand, I relax afterward and partake liberally of the post-donation snacks and beverages, and I am not afraid of needles.

I most frequently donate in Fairfax at Inova. I have also had good experiences with the Red Cross. I avoid Virginia Blood Services based on an unpleasant past experience.

Posted by: William | May 26, 2008 8:54 AM | Report abuse

We need to concentrate on getting more adults to give blood rather that targeting children ages 16 and 17. I don't understand why more than 38% of adults can't give blood. My last donation was my worst experience ever as far as the " digging " and I may not give again. I never did mind to give blood but don't want to be punished in the process.

Posted by: Jim | May 26, 2008 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Even with the regression analysis in that JAMA article, I still think that there's something about being a first-time donor, rather than age, that is the key factor for blood-donating complications. That, and perhaps the lack of proper eating and sleeping habits among 16 and 17 year olds.

The first time I gave blood, I fainted. I woke up with the Red Cross staff throwing freezing cold wet paper towels on my forehead, insisting that I wake up, though I just wanted to stay asleep. Since then, I've given blood probably 15 times. However, lately, the people who've tried to stick me have sucked at it and I haven't been able to give. What's worse is that they blame ME for having small veins. Well, I'm SORRY for having small veins.

So, I haven't gone back and they haven't called. Frankly, though, what the Red Cross could really work on is getting properly trained people who don't make you feel bad for them having screwed up sticking you.

Posted by: Ryan | May 26, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and on top of being blamed, giving blood requires me to waste an hour to 90 minutes of my Saturday morning (plus a bunch of gas to drive there). So, if there are any Red Cross people reading this, you ought to talk to the people running the Charleston Red Cross donation centers -- because they suck!

Posted by: Ryan | May 26, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Fix the typing error please. "I'd be proud if one of my kids wanted to give blook."

Posted by: Buck Batard | May 26, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

I grew up being the ultimate chicken when it comes to needles and shots. Phobis, actually, and had a series of hypnosis sessions to get rid of it. Then about 10 years ago I decided to donate at our office blood drive. Came through like a champ. I've donated several times since, only fainted twice but was still on the cot when that happened.

Our office no longer has blood drives but I donate at local Lions Club or church drives. Our Lions Club drive seems to have the most sullen, unfriendly bloodsuckers alive. No smiling at all, grumpy, curt, and snippy. I'd suggest if they have friendlier staff to do the screening and blood drawing things would be better.

And one more thing -- my sister has hemochromatosis (iron overload) and therapy for that is drawing pints of blood at regular intervals to lower the iron levels. That clean, iron rich blood is poured down the drain. She has had over 70 pints drawn (so far) and that would have helped 210 recipients. As intensive as the screening is for donors, I'd be willing to bet iron overload patients' blood could be used by the Red Cross.

To get back to the original question --if teens are willing and able to donate (with parental consent), why not? I'd be proud if my child wanted to donate. It took me years to get over the terror of needles so I'd say go for it.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | May 26, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

We lived in Britian. Because of that, we can't give blood--the Red Cross is afraid we'll pass on the new variant CJD prion. There is no test for this, and it's a very long lived baddie.
The Red Cross doesn't allow donation by people who have been out of the country for a specified period (I think 6 months). This usually prevents the military from donating, at least those who have served overseas.
That only 38% of the population is allowed to donate doesn't surprise me.

Posted by: Expat now repatriated | May 26, 2008 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I am one pint away from giving 8 gallons. One of the proudest days of my life was when my twins decided to accompany me on Thanksgiving Day when they were 17. There is some caution and concern with these young donors, but my experience has been that older people have bad reactions as well. We give in Portland OR, we give frequent feedback and are pleased with our care.

Posted by: tog | May 26, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

In Southern Maryland, I believe we get all the new Red Cross trainees so the donors can be used as training aids. This means that after I have put in my 8+ hr day at work (and 1.5 hr commute time), I am treated as interfering with the paid Red Cross employee's break because I have the nerve to show up to donate blood so I can be used to train employees to take history and find veins. The wait time is usually 1 hour just to be called to give the history.

When they can not find the vein, I am the one who is blamed for "moving" and I am the one with the bruise for the next week, nice reward for all the time spent just getting to the chair.

It seems many years ago, Doctor and Nurse trainees volunteered at blood drives, and even though I was still a training aid, at least the person with the needle had training prior to going into the field. AND the Red Cross actually appreciated the volunteer donors and tried to take up as little of our time as possible.

So why do I continue to go to the local blood drive - to be able to say I did my small part to help the person who needs blood to survive.

Posted by: Liz | May 26, 2008 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Liz, I agree with your sentiment, except for the part about Southern Maryland being a training ground as the reason for the poor treatment. That's how it is EVERYWHERE.

And speaking about the long wait times, I never understand how the Red Cross can always put out these announcements about being low on blood and desperately needing donors when they can't even handle the ones they have.

Finally, one last point on this: Why does the Red Cross schedule "appointments" when having an appointment gives you absolutely NO priority over walk-ins? And, no, it doesn't help them schedule more workers because you still have to wait even when you have an appointment.

Posted by: Ryan | May 26, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I've given blood for years -- maybe four gallons now, but I gave up counting.

I convinced my husband to give as well and the second or third time he went, he was told his blood count was too low. Our family doctor suggested a month of iron tablets, but then the blood count was lower. A search for blood loss led to the detection of his -- otherwise asymptomatic colon cancer. Surgery and a year of chemotherapy and all is well now.

But if he had not gone to give blood, the cancer might have gone undetected for much longer -- and might have been more invasive and ....

Giving blood sometimes pays off for the donor.

Posted by: Mims | May 26, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I can't help but roll my eyes at some of these comments. Yes, sometimes the experience can be inconvenient or uncomfortable but we are talking about saving lives. A little more important than a bruise or gas money.

I've given 5 times before since I turned 16 and once dealt with a woman who took an hour to fill out the paper work cuz she was new. Lady had no clue what she was doing.

But it was worth it. Send angry letters to the Red Cross, but please don't let a couple bad experiences prevent you from donating in the future!

Posted by: Medusagemini | May 26, 2008 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Medusagemini, I think you misunderstand. When they screw up sticking you, you can't give blood that day. You have to wait the usual interval before you give again. So, you drive all the way out there, wait a while, do the history (where they ask you the same inordinately long questions that they asked you last time, even going so far as to make you take a quiz on the computer where you answer the same questions you just answered to the person), then get to have some Red Cross worker try to stick you and complain that your veins are too small and tell you that this is your fault that she couldn't get your vein, and then finally leave after failing to give any blood.

So, you'd really roll your eyes at this? This is ridiculous. When people give gifts to you, do you treat them like the Red Cross has treated so many people? No? Well, why not? Because it would be rude and, if you depend on gifts, you'd be much less likely to get them in the future. Any and all charitable organizations understand how important it is to treat their donors properly. I'm not saying that people need to be feted for giving blood. I'm just saying: How about you learn a few manners, a few skills for sticking someone, and how to say "thank you" afterward? Oh, and don't blame the donor when things don't work out.

Posted by: Ryan | May 26, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

The first time I gave blood, I was 17 and did it as part of a high school drive. I fainted and apparently had a seizure. When I came to, the first thing I remember them saying was "we recommend you never give blood again". It wasn't all bad, however, since I fainted later in the day and got out of a math test that I really hadn't studied for.

I remember feeling exceptionally guilty not being able to give right after 9/11.

Posted by: Franconia | May 26, 2008 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I found this article after searching the internet because I was concerned.

I am 16 years old and had blood drawn for testing this morning. I was my first time and they only took 2 little vials of blood.

Everything was fine until about 5 minutes afterwards when I got really light headed and threw up outside.
I also had not eaten anything because you are not aloud to (they have to see how your blood is normally)

Posted by: Emily | May 29, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse

I understand Ryan. And I agree with you that the fault lies with the Red Cross. I didn't mean to sound so flippant! I'm just saying don't let minor inconveniences sway you. I think incompetence should definitely be taken seriously. The Red Cross shouldn't bite the hand that... gives them them blood?

Posted by: Medusagemini | May 31, 2008 11:20 PM | Report abuse

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