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Veins, Needles, Yikes: What to Know Before Having Blood Drawn

giving blood, blood donation
Giving blood for donation or having blood drawn for a medical procedure can be stressful and frightening for many people. A little basic knowledge can go a long way toward making the process easier. fotografixx/Getty Images

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Are you going in to have blood drawn for hospital tests or a laboratory procedure? Are you filled with dread about the blood, the sticking, the needles and ... the blood? Or are you donating blood and worried about how to prepare for the process? Don't fret. Here are some things to know, best practices and tidbits to keep in mind, whether you're getting blood drawn during a hospital visit or donating blood at your local clinic.

Know Who Is Drawing Your Blood

If you're having your procedure done in a hospital or healthcare setting, there's a good chance that your blood will be drawn by a phlebotomist, one who specializes in drawing blood, according to Diane Crawford, CEO and Founder of the National Phlebotomy Association. It's important for you as a patient or donor to be prepared before getting blood drawn and don't be afraid to ask questions or assert yourself.

What to Know About Needle Phobia

Do you break out into a cold sweat at the thought of a needle pricking your body? You're not alone. Needle phobia can manifest in the form of feeling panic or experiencing signs of fainting. Make sure to inform the person performing your blood draw about your fears so they can work with you to make your experience a comfortable and safe one. Charif Elmasri, Manager of Transfusion Medicine at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, says that they may suggest certain techniques to tense your muscles and allow for better blood flow. These techniques fall under a method of treatment known broadly as applied tension, which works to increase your blood pressure and prevent fainting. You can learn more about applied tension here.

If you're an adult accompanying a child for a procedure, good old-fashioned tricks of distraction can come in handy. Crawford suggests using stuffed animals or anything else that can lure the child's attention away from the needle. Although the element of distraction isn't just for kids, but works on adults too. "We tell the donor they don't have to look at the needle. We cover the needle. We have monitors in front of them to watch a movie or to watch TV. We keep them entertained. We keep them busy," says Elmasri.

Stay Hydrated, Eat Normally, Avoid Coffee and Alcohol

"It's advisable for donors...to maintain their regular meal schedule. And if possible, to hydrate even more so than they normally would. Water is best in the last 24 to 48 hours prior to donation. It helps the blood to run a little bit smoother and will generally facilitate a better, faster donation," says Don Escalante, Public Relations Specialist for Lifestream Blood Bank, which is a nonprofit that operates blood donation centers in southern California. Juices and soda/caffeinated beverages will not keep you as hydrated as water will, says Escalante. He recommends drinking roughly the equivalent of 4-6 16 ounce (473 milliliter) bottles of water in the 24 hours prior to donating blood, though this is also solid advice for giving a blood sample during a routine hospital or laboratory visit.

Most donor centers or healthcare professionals in a hospital setting will not explicitly ask you beforehand if you've recently been drinking alcohol. But while it may not be illegal per se to donate or give blood while intoxicated, it is not medically advisable to drink alcohol before or after giving blood. Coffee is also best avoided before and after having blood drawn because it has a dehydrating effect, according to Elmasri.

Moreover, if you appear visibly intoxicated, some donation centers, such as the Australian Red Cross, will turn you away for being under the influence of alcohol. When donating blood, you should generally be healthy, which would generally not include being hungover from last night's happy hour.

Dealing with Difficult Veins

Many patients find that they have difficult veins, leading to the stress of having to be pricked numerous times in the search for a good vein. Children and elderly individuals in particular may have small and fragile veins that don’t easily allow a needle-stick — the needle enters the skin just to the side of the target vein, causing it to push, or roll, to one side. Regarding rolling veins: "We experience that a lot, especially with children. The phlebotomist, when they are skilled, will know how to, what we call, 'track' that vein to keep it from rolling," says Crawford.

And If You're Donating Blood...

There are a few things to think about and be aware of if you are thinking about donating blood:

  • Feeling Healthy. According to Escalante, donor centers generally require that patients be generally healthy and feeling well on the day they donate. Elmasri says that patients will have their temperature checked prior to donating. Patients with a fever will be unable to donate that day.
  • Weight. Most donation centers in the U.S. require that blood donors must weigh a minimum of 110 pounds (50 kilograms), according to Escalante. If you weigh less than this and live outside the U.S., call your local blood donation center or national Red Cross hotline to determine their policy on weight restrictions.
  • Tattoos. Contrary to popular belief, recent tattoos are not always an immediate disqualification or reason to defer your blood donation. According to Lifestream (which operates in southern California), if your tattoo is healing and was done in a professionally licensed facility in the state, you can still donate.
  • Diabetes. If you're managing your diabetes with diet and healthy lifestyle, you will be perfectly free to donate blood. However, if you are taking insulin or any other form of medication to treat your condition, Elmasri says that you will not be allowed to donate. You may call your local blood donation center or your country's Red Cross hotline with further questions about diabetes and blood donation.
  • Pregnancy, Chronic Conditions, Diseases and Medication. Have you experienced heart and lung problems, low iron/anemia suffered a stroke or are taking certain kinds of antibiotics? If so, you may not be eligible to donate, but check with your local donation center to confirm. Lifestream also offers a helpful discussion of diseases, chronic conditions and medications that you can find here. If you're pregnant, Lifestream advises not donating until six weeks have passed since the delivery of your child.
  • Travel-related risks. Travel-based restrictions on donations will vary depending on the country in which you're donating. But in the U.S., donors are asked whether they've recently traveled to countries with a risk factor for malaria, per Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. If they have, potential donors may be deferred from donating blood for a certain period of time. You can find more information about the deferral time and malaria risk by country here.
  • Sexual activity. If you are an individual who identifies as a man and have had sexual activity with another man in the last year (12 months), then you may be prevented from donating blood in the U.S. and many other countries. In the U.S., this policy stems from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations from the 1980s, when men who have sex with men (MSM) were at the time thought to be a "high-risk group for AIDS cases." While many LGBT advocates and medical professionals decry these restrictions and call for individualized risk assessments rather than blanket bans for groups of individuals, some form of restrictions against MSM donating blood remain in place in most countries.
  • Children/Minors. Many blood donation centers, such as Children's Hospital of Los Angeles require that patients be of 17 years of age or older to donate blood. However, some, like Lifestream, allow minors between the ages of 15-17 to donate blood with a signed parental consent form available on their website.

Have any other concerns about your eligibility to donate blood? A detailed questionnaire including questions about medical history and lifestyle is standard procedure for most donation centers, and any concerns related to eligibility will be addressed before you donate. Before scheduling a blood donation, check the regulations with your local blood donation clinic.

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