Donating blood for MD Anderson cancer patients: 12 things to know

Our cancer patients need approximately 150 units of red blood cells and 110 units of platelets each day. MD Anderson Blood Bank depends on local blood and platelet donors to meet this need. And, this need is especially great right now during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Most blood and plasma donations are used to help our patients with blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Some replace blood lost during surgery. But all blood donations are critically important to our cancer patients’ recovery.

Here are 12 questions that I commonly hear from potential blood donors.

Who can donate blood to the MD Anderson Blood Bank?

Healthy individuals who weigh more than 110 pounds, are at least 17 years old and meet the basic criteria. But potential donors must also meet other requirements to qualify.

For instance, women who are currently pregnant are not eligible to donate blood. Neither is anyone who has ever had cancer before — except for two very specific types: basal cell carcinoma and cervical cancer in-situ.

Can I give blood if I have chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure?


Can I still give blood if I’m taking medication?

Yes. Certain medications may disqualify you from donating, but the list is updated frequently. That’s why we encourage you to contact us first if you’re interested, instead of just assuming you can’t give. Most medications are acceptable.

For instance, the blood thinner Plavix used to require a 30-day wait, across the board. Now, it only requires a two-week wait for someone donating platelets. There’s no whole-blood restriction.

Can I still donate if I’ve been in the military?

Yes, you are now eligible to donate. Previously, those who lived in U.S. military bases in Europe were not allowed to donate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently changed this. Our military members can now donate blood and help support our cancer patients.

Can I still donate if I have traveled outside the U.S.?

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, anyone who has traveled internationally must wait 14 days before attempting to donate, in case they were exposed to the virus.

New FDA guidelines have reduced the deferral period for malaria-risk travel from 12 months to three months.

Additional details on temporary and permanent disqualifications related to travel can be found on our website.

Is it safe to donate blood during the coronavirus pandemic? What if I’ve had COVID-19?

Yes, it’s safe for both donors and recipients, even if you’ve recovered from COVID-19. It is a respiratory virus, not a blood-borne disease. And there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can be contracted through a blood donation or transmitted through a blood transfusion.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the blood donation process, MD Anderson requires Blood Bank employees and donors to wear masks. We’re also only accepting blood donations by appointment to ensure social distancing and limit the number of people in close proximity at any given time.

If you have recently recovered from COVID-19, please consider donating convalescent plasma to MD Anderson Blood Bank. This convalescent plasma may be used to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.

How long do I need to wait after having a cold, the flu or a cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection to donate blood?

CMV is so common that we feel it’s a waste of time to test for it, but by removing white blood cells from our donations, we provide CMV safe blood components. Many people are CMV positive and don’t even know it, because they don’t have any symptoms.

Like COVID-19, colds and the flu are respiratory viruses, so they are not spread through transfusions. Generally speaking, if you are feeling well and healthy right now and have been free of symptoms for at least a week, you are welcome to donate.

Where can I donate blood for MD Anderson patients?

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, our location at 2555 Holly Hall is our only Texas Medical Center location currently open to the public. But a mobile unit regularly holds blood drives at MD Anderson’s locations in West HoustonThe WoodlandsLeague City and Sugar Land, and throughout the Greater Houston area. Find a blood drive near you.

While they're not open due to COVID-19 restrictions, MD Anderson 
normally accepts blood donations at two other locations in the Texas Medical Center. One is on the second floor of our Main Building, near elevator D. The other is on the second floor of the Mays Clinic, near the Tree Sculpture.

Can I donate blood to another organization and have it transferred to MD Anderson?

No. Blood donors must give directly to MD Anderson. The only way to ensure blood goes to MD Anderson patients is to donate blood at one of our MD Anderson Blood Bank locations or through an MD Anderson community blood drive.

Why is there almost as great a need for platelets as for whole blood?

Cancer patients tend to require more platelets than whole blood donations. When patients develop a dangerously low platelet count due to chemotherapy or a stem cell transplant, there’s always a risk that they could start bleeding spontaneously. So, we provide transfusions of platelets to prevent that.

We also give platelets to patients who are already bleeding. Some conditions — such as acute promyelocytic leukemia — require patients to have higher platelet counts before they can undergo certain procedures, such as endoscopies, biopsies and lumbar punctures. So, they need platelets, too.

How often can I donate blood? What about platelets?

You can donate whole blood every eight weeks. You can donate platelets every 48 hours — up to 24 times a year.

What’s the one thing you want people to know about donating blood?

Don’t just assume you can’t donate. A lot of people think, “Well, I’ve got high blood pressure.” Or, “I’ve got diabetes, so I can’t donate.” And that’s not necessarily true. The list of medications and travel restrictions changes all the time.

The best way to find out for sure is to call the MD Anderson Blood Bank at 713-792-7777. We look forward to seeing you.

Fernando Martinez, M.D., is a pathologist at MD Anderson and Medical Director of Transfusion Services and Donor Operations.

Schedule an appointment to donate blood online by calling 713-792-7777.