Chapter 3



  • Determine the best treatment for the patient which may include transfusion. Treat the cause of cytopenia (anaemia or thrombocytopenia) or plasma protein deficiency in preference to transfusion.
  • Transfusion usually only gives temporary relief.
  • Always balance risk and benefit of transfusion for the individual patient.
  • Gain consent prior to transfusion.
  • IV fluids are first line therapy for hypovolaemia and blood loss.
  • Crystalloids are the preferred IV fluid for initial resuscitation.


The decision to use blood transfusion as part of clinical management is dependent upon:

  • the balance of benefits and risks to the individual patient, and
  • alternative or complementary therapies.

3.1.1    Aims of transfusion

Erythrocyte transfusion aims to increase oxygen carrying capacity to improve tissue oxygenation.

Plasma infusion aims to replace reduced plasma protein levels and will assist to increase oncotic pressure.

Platelet transfusion aims to reduce bleeding risk due to thrombocytopenia or functional platelet defects.

Whole blood transfusion aims to provide red cells. Platelets become non-functional with fridge (2-6°C) storage. Many plasma proteins, especially Factors V and VIII, are severely reduced with room temperature or fridge storage.

3.1.2    Risk and Benefits

Blood transfusion carries a component safety risk, such as transmissible disease and immune modulation. The administration of the component carries risk associated with consent, fluid balance and incorrect patient identification.

The decision to transfuse blood or blood products should always be based on a careful assessment of clinical and laboratory indications that transfusion is necessary to save life or prevent significant morbidity. Before any transfusion, the clinician should ask the following questions:

  • Is blood transfusion really needed?
  • If YES, what does the patient really need?

Volume replacement; improved tissue oxygenation; haemostatic control; plasma protein replacement or improved immune function?

  • Which component(s) are being considered?
  • Are there alternatives?
  • How much is needed, how often and how long?
  • What is the optimal way and time of administration of the transfusion?
  • What indicators should be used to measure outcomes?


The following principles apply:

  1. Transfusion is only one element of the patient’s management.
  2. Patients should be clearly identified.
  3. Prescribing decisions should be based on the national guidelines on the clinical use of blood, taking individual patient needs into account.
  4. Blood loss should be minimized to reduce the patient’s need for transfusion.
  5. The patient with acute blood loss should receive effective resuscitation (intravenous replacement fluids, oxygen, etc.) while the need for transfusion is being assessed.
  6. The patient’s haemoglobin value, although important, should not be the sole deciding factor in starting transfusion. The decision to transfuse should be supported by the need to relieve clinical signs and symptoms and prevent significant morbidity and mortality (multiple organ failure).
  7. The clinician should be aware of the risks of transfusion-transmissible infection in the blood and blood products that are available for the individual patient.
  8. Transfusion should be prescribed only when the benefits to the patient are likely to outweigh the risks.
  9. The clinician should record the reason for transfusion clearly.
  10. Patients should give consent for transfusion which should be documented in the patient case record.
  11. A trained person should monitor the transfused patient and respond immediately if any adverse effects occur.

The decision to transfuse a patient is governed by many clinical factors, examples of which are listed in table 3.1 (see below).

1. Reduction in Red Cell or Hb

External bleeding

Planned surgery

Internal bleeding

e.g. peptic ulcer; varices; ectopic pregnancy; antepartum haemorrhage; ruptured uterus


e.g. chest; spleen; pelvis; femur


Malaria; Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever


2. Patient's ability to tolerate anaemia

Perform clinical assessment

e.g. pre-eclampsia; renal failure; cardiorespiratory diesease; chronic lung disease; acute infection; diabetes


Current cardiorespiratory and oxygenation status
Check: pulse rate; BP; signs of cardiac failure; urine output and fluid balance; angina; respiratory rate and/or distress; conscious state

Perform laboratory assessment

Current laboratory values
Check: Hb; MCV; Platelet count; coagulation profile (aPTT, INR, Fibrinogen)

Prescribing decisions should be based on individual patient needs and national guidelines. Decisions should also be based on knowledge of local patterns of illness, the resources available for managing patients and the safety and availability of blood and intravenous replacement fluids.

Responsibility for the decision to transfuse ultimately rests with individual clinicians.


All decision making around transfusion should include assessment of possible alternatives. Placing the patient’s needs in the centre of decision making is very important and is now called “Patient Blood Management”. A patient with low blood volume typically needs volume expansion and may not require transfusion. A patient with anaemia primarily due to iron deficiency rarely needs a transfusion and iron therapy is more appropriate.

3.3.1    Intravenous replacement therapy

The administration of intravenous replacement fluids restores the circulating blood volume and so maintains tissue perfusion. In severe haemorrhage, initial treatment (resuscitation) with intravenous replacement fluids may be life-saving and provide time to control the bleeding and order blood for transfusion, if necessary.

  • Replacement fluids are used to replace abnormal losses of blood, plasma or other extracellular fluids by increasing the volume of the vascular compartment. Principally in:
    - treatment of patients with established hypovolaemia: eg haemorrhagic shock, and
    - maintenance of normovolaemia in patients with ongoing fluid losses: eg surgical blood loss.
  • Intravenous replacement fluids are the first-line treatment for hypovolaemia. Initial treatment with these fluids may be life-saving and provide some time to control bleeding and obtain blood for transfusion, if it becomes necessary.
  • Crystalloid solutions with a similar concentration of sodium to plasma (e.g. normal saline or balanced salt solutions) are effective as replacement fluids. Dextrose (glucose) solutions do not contain sodium and are poor replacement fluids.
  • Crystalloid replacement fluids have a short half life and may be needed in slightly greater volume (one and a half times) than the volume lost in order to correct hypovolaemia.
  • All colloid solutions (albumin, dextrans, gelatins and hydroxyethyl starch solutions) can be used in volume replacement but have not been shown to be superior to crystalloids for resuscitation. Dextrans may interfere with ABO blood group determination.
  • Colloid solutions should be infused in a volume equal to the blood volume deficit.
  • Plasma can correct hypovolaemia but it should not be used as a replacement fluid.
  • Plain water should never be infused intravenously. It will cause haemolysis and will probably be fatal.
  • In addition to the intravenous route, the intra-osseous, oral, rectal or subcutaneous routes can be used for the administration of fluids.


Volume need shall be met with alternatives (IV fluids) –

Crystalloids (e.g. normal saline)


  • Readily available.
  • Easy to store.
  • Easy to use.
  • Not immunogenic and not toxic.
  • No infection risk.
  • Low cost.
  • Equal to colloids for fluid resuscitation.


  • No oncotic (colloid osmotic) pressure.
Colloids (e.g. albumin and starch solutions)


  • Readily available.
  • Easy to store.
  • Easy to use.
  • Not toxic.
  • No infection risk.
  • Provide oncotic (colloid osmotic) pressure.
  • Low cost.


  • Short survival.
  • Sometimes immunogenic.
  • Sometimes effect on coagulation (platelets).
  • Sometimes interference with blood group determination and cross match.
  • Possible delay in albumin synthesis.

3.3.2    Drugs

Consideration should be given to medications as alternatives to transfusion. Improvement of haemoglobin with iron, folate and vitamin B12 may be appropriate for many patients. Eryopoiesis can be stimulated by erythropoietin and related drugs.

Avoidance of anti-platelet drugs (e.g. clopridogel and aspirin) and anti-coagulants (e.g. warfarin) may reduce bleeding and the need for platelet, plasma and erythrocyte transfusions.

Some medications (e.g. steroids) improve platelet counts in patients with immune thrombocytopenia as platelet transfusions are not beneficial in these patients. Vasocontrictors and ionotropes are important medications in resuscitation but seldom change the need for transfusion.    Iron

Iron deficiency is common and replacement may be achieved by oral therapy in most cases. Transfusion is rarely indicated for isolated iron deficiency. See chapter 4 for additional information.    Tranexamic Acid

An anti-fibrinolytic useful in reducing bleeding and the need for erythrocyte transfusion in surgical and trauma settings. A large study of blood use in trauma indicates a 30% reduction in the use of blood products when given within 3 hours of trauma. Tranexamic acid should be considered for all trauma and surgical patients who are expected to need large volume transfusions.

A standard adult dose of tranexamic acid for trauma is 1g IV within 3 hours of trauma followed by 1g IV over 8 hours. The same dose protocol can be used for planned surgery.

Some studies also suggest a role in bleeding secondary to thrombocytopenia. Tranexamic acid may be useful in patients with bleeding and thrombocytopenia when there are no platelets available for transfusion. May also be considered when bleeding is poorly controlled after platelet transfusion.

Tranexamic acid is available in both IV and oral.

Medical intervention should only occur with the consent of a patient or their legal guardian. A physician should seek consent from the patient prior to the transfusion and after having informed the patient about possible risks and appropriate alternatives. The indication for transfusion, the patient’s consent and the outcome of the transfusion should be documented in the patient’s file for traceability purposes and consistent with sound patient record keeping. Refusal of transfusion also needs to be documented. Refusal of consent for religious or personal reasons must be documented in the patient’s medical record. Where a patient refuses consent to specific blood products both those not to be administered and acceptable alternatives should be clearly documented. Where a parent or guardian refuses to consent to administer blood or blood products to a child in an emergency situation local state or national legislation or guidelines should apply. 


Before administering blood products, it is important to clearly write the reason for transfusion in the patient file. If the patient later has a problem that could be related to the transfusion, the records should show who ordered the products and why. This information is also useful for conducting an audit of transfusion practice. The record you make in the patient file is your best protection if there is any medico-legal challenge later on.


The order for the blood product should contain:

  • the patient name and UR number or date of birth,
  • the type of blood component required,
  • the time over which it is to be administered, and
  • any related medication such as premedication or diuretics that may be required.

See Annex 3. Example of a model blood request form as advocated by WHO.

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