As COVID-19 spreads around the world, many individuals are filled with questions about its impact on the lives of cancer patients. When you’re moving through cancer treatment, it’s important to understand the major changes that are happening as a result of coronavirus.
One of these changes rests on whether or not it’s still safe to receive blood transfusions. If you’re interested in hearing how COVID-19 is impacting blood donations, read on. We’ll cover that and more in our guide.
COVID-19: The Basics
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a virus that spreads from person to person. Symptoms can range from no symptoms to mild symptoms, to severe illness. COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, talks, or sneezes. You can also get the virus through touching an object that is contaminated with the virus — then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and the best way to avoid it is to stay home except for medical care reasons, wear a cloth that covers your face when in public, disinfect surfaces, and wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. 4
Because cancer and cancer treatments can weaken the immune system, cancer patients might be at a higher risk for contracting the virus.
First — Exactly What is a Blood Transfusion?
In America, blood transfusions save millions of lives every year. During a transfusion, blood (or some part of it) is put into a person’s vein through an IV. Blood transfusions are often given to individuals who are losing blood or can’t make enough blood cells. 1
Can Coronavirus Be Transmitted Through Blood Transfusions?
To prevent shortages during the outbreak of coronavirus and help maintain a sufficient blood supply, the American Red Cross is asking healthy eligible people to give blood or platelets. 2
But can coronavirus be transmitted through blood transfusion?
According to the Red Cross, there is no date or evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted through blood transfusion. There have been no reported cases of transfusion transmission for any respiratory virus (including this coronavirus worldwide). The Red Cross only collects blood from healthy people who are feeling well at the time of donation and meet all of the other eligibility requirements.
As of March 10, 2020, the Red Cross has implemented the following blood donation deferrals. People are asked to postpone their donation for 28 days following travel to China and its special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau, as well as Iran, Italy and South Korea, diagnosis of COVID-19, or contact with a person who is suspected to have the virus.
At each of their blood drive and donation centers, the Red Cross employees follow the following safety protocols: wearing gloves, routinely wiping down donor-touched areas, using sterile collection sets for every donation, and preparing the arm for donation with an aseptic scrub. These practices help to reduce contact with those who may have coronavirus and ensure blood recipient safety as well as the safety of staff and donors.
As coronavirus continues to evolve, the Red Cross has worked in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry partners to decide whether or not additional strategies need to be implemented.
Why Can’t COVID-19 Be Transmitted By Blood?
Viruses set out on a search for host cells. When they find them, they invade the cells and use them to replicate themselves. When they do this, they use the cell’s infrastructure to copy their genetic instructions. This helps the virus create new particles called virions that break out of the host cell and repeat the cycle. 3
Viruses look for binding sites, or proteins, they can bind onto their host and invade. COVID-19’s binding sites are in the respiratory tract — particularly, the lower lung and digestive system. Evidence shows that COVID-19 does not target blood cells or use blood plasma to invade organs. In Canada, data has been collected daily and models have been run to see how likely it is to collect blood from a donor who is infected with coronavirus.
In their findings, due to the way the virus works and moves, “[they’re] looking at odds of one in 100 million chance of collecting a blood donation containing the virus.”
Why Do Cancer Patients Get Blood Transfusions?
There are several reasons why people with cancer might need blood transfusions. 1
- Cancers (like those of the digestive system) can cause internal bleeding. This can lead to anemia due to too few red blood cells.
- Cancers that start in the bone marrow, like leukemias, or cancers that spread there from other places in the body might crowd out normal blood-making cells and lead to low blood counts.
- Individuals who have had cancer for a while may develop a specific type of chronic disease called anemia. This is caused by long-term medical conditions that affect the production and lifespan of the body’s red blood cells.
- Cancer can affect organs like the kidneys and spleen, which help keep enough cells in the blood. This can lower blood counts.
- Cancer surgery may lead to blood loss and a need for red blood cell or platelet transfusions.
- Chemotherapy drugs affect cells in the bone marrow, which can lead to low blood cell counts, and put patients at a risk for infections or bleeding.
- Radiation, when used to treat large areas of the bone, can affect the bone marrow (and lead to low blood cell counts).
- A bone marrow transplant or peripheral blood stem cell transplant requires large doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, which destroys blood-making cells in the bone marrow and leads to low blood cell counts after the transfusion.
What are the Types of Transfusions?
There are various types of blood transfusions that are given to cancer patients for different reasons. Here are some of the types of transfusions cancer patients may receive. 1
Red blood cell transfusions
Red blood cells are normally made in the bone marrow and they have a vital job; they carry oxygen from the lungs and through the bloodstream to each part of the body thanks to a substance called hemoglobin. Red blood cell transfusions might be used in people who have anemia — and anemia may affect those with certain heart or lung diseases more than others.
Plasma is the clear liquid part of the blood that contains proteins that help the blood to clot. Plasma can be donated during a process called apheresis or plasmapheresis. Plasma is given to patients who are bleeding if their blood is not clotting properly. If cancer patients have what’s called DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation) they might be given fresh frozen plasma.
Platelets are fragments of cells in the blood. They help during the clotting process as well and are usually found in the plasma. Cancer patients will sometimes need a platelet transfusion if their bone marrow is not making enough — such as when platelet-producing bone marrow cells are damaged during chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Cryoprecipitate refers to the fraction of plasma that separates when plasma is frozen and then thawed. People with cancer rarely need cryoprecipitate transfusions unless they are bleeding.
White blood cell transfusions
White blood cell transfusions are also rarely given. Instead, drugs called colony-stimulating factors or growth factors to help the body make its own white blood cells.
Treating Cancer Patients with COVID-19 at ITC
At Immunity Therapy Center, we understand that cancer is unique for everyone. We customize our clients’ treatment plans based on the stage of their cancer and their overall health.
We know this time of uncertainty, can produce anxiety and feels of unease in our patients and their families. It’s important to take care of yourself, eat healthy, get adequate sleep, and practice mindful ways to relax in the present moment — like breathing in the fresh air, taking time to read a good book, or writing your feelings down in a journal.
Thankfully, if you are a cancer patient who currently needs a blood transfusion (or may need one in the future) you do not need to worry about the COVID-19 virus being transferred to you in the process. The American Red Cross has ensured the public that the virus cannot be transmitted through transfusion.
If you’d like to hear more about our holistic cancer treatment plans or have any questions about blood transfusions, make sure to reach out to our staff today. Our team is passionate about what we do — and we look forward to becoming part of your journey to wellness.
From all of us at Immunity Therapy Center, take care of yourself and those you love. And remember, we’re all in this together.
For more information, see our guides to Coronavirus Resources for Cancer Patients and How to Seek Treatment as a Cancer Patient During COVID-19.
- “Blood Transfusions for People with Cancer.” cancer.org, June 20, 2016,
- “Red Cross Urges Healthy Individuals to Give Blood amid Coronavirus Concerns.” redcross.org, March 10, 2020,
- “Why you won’t get COVID-19 from a blood transfusion.” blood.ca, (no publish date),
https://blood.ca/en/stories/why-you-wont-get-covid-19-from-a-blood-transfusion . Accessed April 20, 2020,
- “What you should know about COVID-19 to protect yourself and others.” cdc.gov, April 15, 2020,
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/2019-ncov-factsheet.pdf. Accessed April 20, 2020.