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As Brits rush to support amber alert blood drive, find out who's eligible to donate

Blood donate. (Getty Images)
Brits have tried to register to donate blood after supplies dropped drastically. (Getty Images)

Brits have rushed to donate blood after the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) declared its first ever amber alert as supplies dropped critically low.

After the alert broke on Wednesday, 12 October calling on the public to help, the Give Blood website page was inundated, with many potential donors placed in a queue for up to an hour.

The platform uses a queuing system to manage business on the site by allowing only a set number of people to use the services at a time, aiming to prevent its systems from being overloaded.

A warning on the site explains that at times both the blood.co.uk website or the NHSGiveBlood app get a high volume of traffic due to press coverage and social media.

NHS Give Blood uses a 'Queue-it' system when the donation site is too busy. (NHS Give Blood)
NHS Give Blood uses a 'Queue-it' system when the donation site is too busy. (NHS Give Blood)

"How long you will have to wait depends on how many people are trying to use the website or app. You will be able to see your position in the queue and an estimate for how long you need to wait," it states.

Phone lines run by the NHSBT have also seen a rise in calls.

The huge response follows hospitals being told to implement plans to protect stocks, which could mean non-urgent operations that require blood are postponed to prioritise them for patients most in need.

A NHSBT spokesperson said current overall blood stocks in the NHS are at 3.1 days but levels of type O blood have fallen to below two days. O negative is the universal blood type that can be given to everyone, which is crucial during emergencies and when someone's blood type is unknown.

Existing O negative and O positive donors are being urged to book in to give blood, while people from other blood groups are being asked to keep their appointments.

So, if you're wondering how to donate blood, how much you can give and who is eligible to donate, here's what you need to know.

Man donating blood
Brits have answered calls to donate blood but are faced with online queues. (Getty Images)

How to donate blood

If you're new to blood donation you can register to become a donor on the NHS Give Blood website.

While most people can, it's not always possible to be a donor. You will be asked a series of questions (that it states aren't recorded in any way) so the NHSBT can advise if it's 'appropriate' for you.

They ask you for your age, weight, previous blood transfusions and cancer history. If you're able to register, you'll be able to find out more about where you can donate and book an appointment, update your personal details and view your blood group (after first donation). You can also use the NHSGiveBlood app.

Although you may be keen, of course, to help save lives as soon as possible, there can be limited appointments for first-time blood donors, but NHSBT promises to get in touch when there's space, or you can book in advance.

That said, the appointment system balances the supply of blood with the changing demand from patients. As of 12 October, seven blood donor centres had more than 50 available appointments for the rest of this week: Bradford, Bristol, Liverpool, Tooting and Westfield in London, Luton and Southampton.

There are 25 permanent blood donation venues and thousands of local venues in towns and cities across England.

The process from start to finish includes checking whether you can give blood, registering your interest, finding an appointment and following the 'preparing to give blood recommendations', before your appointment.

How much blood can you donate?

The average adult has roughly 10 pints of blood (around 8%) of your body weight. A blood donation uses around one pint.

Once you've reached the full 470ml donation at your appointment, this is when the needle will be removed and a sterile dressing will be put on your arm.

When you give blood you lose red cells, but your body is able to replace all the cells and fluids that have been lost. Amazingly, your body can make around two million red cells every second, which means it only takes a few weeks to build up stores again.

Meanwhile, your levels of white cells and platelets (other stem cells) go back to normal after just a few days.

How often can you donate blood?

Male donors have to wait a minimum of 12 weeks between blood donations and female donors 16 weeks to allow for all the red cells to replenish. However, you can conveniently schedule your next appointment for when you'll be ready using the online appointment system.

The red-coloured haemoglobin (a protein) that your red cells contain takes oxygen around your body. Haemoglobin also contains iron, and as some is lost in each donation, it is cleverly taken from your body's iron stores, and the amount you absorb from food and drink increases. Men usually have more iron stores than women, due to menstruation.

hands of a lab technician with a tube of blood sample and a rack with other samples / lab technician holding blood tube sample for study
Giving blood can help save lives as it is used for people who need vital treatments. (Getty Images)

How long does it take to donate blood?

If you're wondering what happens on the day when you give blood, rest reassured, you'll be guided through the process from start to finish.

Before going to your appointment, you just need to make sure you eat regular meals, drink plenty of fluid (non-alcoholic, of course) and avoid vigorous exercise. Don't forget to bring your completed Donor Safety Check form with you (if you received one in the post) and read the donor consent information booklet on arrival.

You will given water, called for a private health screening where you'll be asked some confidential questions and your haemoglobin levels will be tested, before being invited to your donation chair to give blood.

Then you'll be given some important care advice to take home, before being offered a selection of drinks and snacks at the refreshment table. You're encouraged to relax for 15 minutes before heading home.

NHS Give Blood aims to ensure that your whole donation journey lasts no more than one hour from your planned arrival time, with the donation itself taking just 5-10 minutes.

How old do you have to be to donate blood?

You have to be aged between 17 and 65 to give blood. But other than age, you also have to be generally fit and healthy, weigh between seven stone and 12lbs (50kg) and 25 stone (158kg), have suitable veins (these will be checked before your donation) and meet all the eligibility criteria (again, this will be checked in advance).

For the full list of who can't give blood, visit the health, eligibility and travel section of the website.

Nurse taking blood sample from patient at the doctors office.
You have to be over 17 to give blood. (Getty Images)

Can gay men donate blood?

Gay and bisexual men aren’t automatically prevented from giving blood. Men who have sex with men (MSM) (and anyone) can give blood if they have had the same partner for three months or more and meet the eligibility criteria.

The rules changed last year so that everyone who attends to give blood, regardless of their gender, is asked about their individual circumstances surrounding health, travel and sexual behaviours linked to a higher risk of sexual infection.

People can also donate if they have a new sexual partner with whom they have not had anal sex, or if there is no known recent exposure to an sexually-transmitted infection or recent use of PrEP or PEP medication [these are taken to prevent HIV transmission].

However, anyone who has had anal sex with a new partner or with multiple partners in the last three months will not be able to give blood right now.

“Patient safety is at the heart of everything we do," explained Ella Poppitt, chief nurse for Blood Donation at NHS Blood and Transplant last 14 June on World Blood Donor Day. "This change is about switching around how we assess the risk of exposure to a sexual infection, so it is more tailored to the individual.”

Ethan Spibey, founder of FreedomToDonate, also said at the time, "After many years of campaigning, and working with the UK’s blood services, we are delighted that this change is now coming into effect.

“Thanks to the work of dedicated individuals and charities alongside NHSBT, the UK now has one of the world’s most progressive blood donation policies and more people than ever will be able to safely donate blood. The work of the FAIR steering group shows that simply being a man who has sex with men is not a good enough reason to exclude someone from donating blood.”

In light of the new amber alert and a call for donors, Spibey told Yahoo Life UK, “It shows just how important outreach from NHSBT is for communities who have previously been excluded.”

He added that outreach is “absolutely vital because, let’s be honest, for many years huge swathes of the population were excluded in frankly unfair policy”.

“We do have a policy now which is much fairer and more inclusive but it still means that we need to do more to reach communities who historically have been excluded from donating blood.”

As well as MSM, Spibey said, “The rules also changed last year around partners from different countries which disproportionately impacted Black communities.”

Since December, donors are no longer asked if their partner has ever had sex in areas where HIV is endemic – which includes most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Instead, all donors are now asked the same questions about recent sexual behaviours and are eligible to donate if the risk of past or recently acquired infection is low.

Spibey said it’s also crucial people understand the impact and importance of donating blood, with it used for vital procedures including cancer treatment.

“The individual responsibility needs to be matched by the awareness about just how important donating blood is," he adds.

"So yes, it’s really important that more people come forward, but it’s also important the government does more to recognise just how powerful that is. We should be doing more nationally to talk about the power of donating blood."

Spibey says the stats speak for themselves, as one in four of us will need blood at some point in our lives and each donation of blood can save up to three lives. “It’s one of those things that no one really talks about but it literally is an everyday lifesaver.”

Can you donate blood if you have tattoos?

Unfortunately, if you have had a tattoo or body piercing recently you might have to hold off before you can donate again.

You have to wait for four months from the date of your body piercing or tattoo (including semi-permanent make-up and microblading) before you give blood.

It is also advised to avoid having a tattoo or skin piercing on the same day or evening after donating blood as there may be an increased risk of an adverse reaction.

If you are well and feeling fully recovered from blood donation the next day, there is no advice for further restrictions. Of course, this will mean you won't be eligible again for four months.

Additional reporting PA.