Donating Plasma vs. Blood: The Differences and Similarities
Many people think donating plasma and whole blood are the same thing. The truth is they’re quite different. Here’s what you need to know about the two donation types.
In the United States, someone needs a blood transfusion every two seconds. Blood donations are essential for saving lives. To keep up with demand, donation centers depend on altruistic individuals, like you, who want to give back and make a difference. Before you sign up for your first appointment, you'll want to weigh your options by comparing both donation experiences.
Plasma and whole blood products are equally vital in the life-saving procedures and treatments that occur at hospitals and medical centers every day. As a blood donor, you have an opportunity to make a huge impact no matter what type of donation you make. However, the whole blood and plasma donation processes aren't exactly the same, so you should choose the right option for you based on what you are comfortable with.
To help you decide, this guide offers a comparison of donating plasma vs. blood, including a breakdown of what you can expect from the two processes.
Donating Plasma vs. Blood Comparison
Whole blood donations are what most people think of when they think about donating blood. This type of donation includes all four blood components—red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma—and is frequently used to treat blood loss, which may occur during surgery or due to injuries.
Sometimes patients are in need of specific blood components or a transfusion of a particular blood type. Hospitals and medical centers are in urgent need of blood plasma to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from trauma and bleeding disorders to primary immunodeficiencies, cancer, and certain rare diseases.
The global demand for plasma-derived medicine, like immunoglobulin (Ig), is growing at a rate of 6%-8% annually. The Immune Deficiency Foundation anticipates a shortage of immunoglobulin due to a decrease in plasma donations during the COVID-19 pandemic. This puts patients who depend on these life-saving treatments and health care practitioners in a difficult position. To put it into perspective, treating just one patient with plasma therapies for a year requires between 130 -1,200 plasma donations.
While plasma can be separated from standard blood donations, the current whole blood supply is not enough to cover the demand for both whole blood and plasma alone. Now that you have some context to the importance of plasma donations, let's review some of the major differences and similarities between donating plasma vs. blood.
Plasma donations and blood donations have similar eligibility guidelines.
To be a qualified donor, you need to weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good health, which means you don't have any chronic illnesses or medical conditions that may make your donation a risk to yourself or those who may receive medicine from your donation. For example, you may be disqualified from donating if you have a blood-borne disease, which could impact recipients, or a bleeding disorder like hemophilia, which could pose a safety risk to you.
At Parachute, plasma donors need to fall within a slightly stricter age range (18-64 years old) compared to blood donors, who must be at least 16. Minors also need parental consent to donate whole blood. When checking in for your donation, both plasma and blood donors need to provide a valid photo ID. If donating at a plasma donation center, you'll also need to provide a Social Security card or proof of Social Security number, and a proof of address.
Preparing for your visit can make all of the difference. Here are some tips to help make your donation experience a bit smoother. We recommend doing the following in the 24 hours leading up to your appointment:
- Drink plenty of water, ideally 9-13 cups. The American Red Cross recommends an additional 2 cups of water before your donation.
- Eat healthy meals full of iron and protein.
- Avoid fatty foods, caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Get plenty of sleep.
These wellness tips can also help mitigate some minor post-donation side effects such as lightheadedness while ensuring that your vitals are optimal before donating. There really is no major difference in how you should prepare for plasma or whole blood donations—or even red blood cell or platelet donations, for that matter—so make sure to follow these guidelines regardless of which path you choose.
The Donation Process
The whole blood donation process is pretty simple and the donation itself takes about 10 minutes. The plasma donation process, known as plasmapheresis, is a bit more complex, although it doesn't feel much different for the donor. One of the key differences is that the plasma donation process uses an apheresis machine to carefully separate your plasma from other blood components.
Once the plasma is collected, the remaining blood components are safely and gently returned to your body with a saline solution to help with hydration. Even with the extra steps, you can still complete the actual donation in about an hour, during which you can read a book, browse through Instagram, do a crossword puzzle, or listen to music.
Whether you're donating plasma or blood, you'll begin the process with a simple health screening, which should take about 15 minutes. The health screening includes a short questionnaire about your medical history as well as a vitals check. During the vitals check, a technician will check your temperature, blood pressure, pulse, weight, and perform a quick finger prick test to measure your red blood cell and protein levels. This helps provide a glimpse into your overall health and ensures that it's safe for you to donate that day.
From start to finish, plasma donations typically take about 60 minutes, while blood donations usually take 30-45 minutes. Generally, blood donation centers have longer wait times than plasma centers, so you may end up spending over an hour with the American Red Cross or a local blood bank when making whole blood donations.
We recognize that your time is valuable. That's why we've reimagined the plasma donation experience with donors in mind. With the Parachute app, you can schedule your donation from the palm of your hand. Plus, there are zero wait times.
First-Time Donor Considerations
The whole blood donation process is always the same, whether you're a new or return donor. However, first-time plasma donors should allow for about 2.5-3 hours for their very first visit. That's because you will need to get registered, complete a quick physical, and review the plasma donation process with center staff.
For a plasma donor, physicals are only required on your first visit, once a year thereafter, and if you haven't donated within a period of 180 days from your most recent physical. This is for your safety and the safety of patients who may receive medicine from your plasma.
Besides being able to help others, another benefit to donating plasma is that you can get compensated for your time. Unlike full-time jobs or part-time gigs, there are no commitments and how often you donate is completely up to you.
As long as you go to a plasma collection center—not a blood center—you can earn as much as $40-$50 per visit. At Parachute, our app makes it easy (and fun) to maximize your earnings through new member bonuses, challenges, referrals, and time incentive bonuses. Frequent plasma donors can easily earn thousands of dollars per year while helping others.
Unfortunately, whole blood donors do not get compensated for their time. Whether you're donating at a mobile blood drive or a nearby blood bank, there is no payment for your donation.
With plasma donations, you can truly maximize the good you're doing in the world. Since plasma is made up of about 90% water, your body can replenish its plasma relatively quickly. This means that you can donate plasma twice within a seven-day period, you'll just need to allow for 1-day in-between visits. On the other hand, whole blood donors need to wait 56 days between appointments since other blood components—especially red cells—don't replenish quite as quickly as plasma.
Choose Your Ideal Type of Donation
When you compare donating plasma vs. blood, you can see that there are a handful of differences. Plasma donations are a great fit for anyone who wants to earn extra while having a meaningful impact on the lives of others, while whole blood donations are perfect for those who are short on time, but still want to give back.
Regardless of which donation type you choose, your donated blood or blood plasma will play an important role in improving patients' lives across the country and around the world.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.