Beginner’s Guide to Plasma Donation

If you don’t know much about it, plasma donation can seem pretty intimidating. Searching online doesn’t help much either.  All you will usually find is a list of 4-5 simple steps without much detail.

This is a big decision for you to make.  You need better information, but it just doesn’t exist.  I’ve worked in the plasma industry for years and have seen thousands of people who were in your exact situation. To help people like you, I put together this complete guide that walks you through the plasma donation process.

How do you donate plasma

As a new donor, you will go through a 5 step process on your first visit.  The order may vary from company to company, but you will have to go through some variation of these steps. 

  1. Check-In:  Review your paperwork & documents
  2. Screening:    Measure your vitals and a blood test through a small finger prick
  3. Questionnaire:  Questions on your medical history, behavior and current health
  4. Physical Exam:  A qualified medical professional will conduct a brief exam
  5. Donate:  Complete your first plasma donation

Most of the time, this list of steps is all you get about the donation process. Instead, I will provide as much detail as possible so you know what to expect.  

What to do before donating plasma 

Be prepared.  What you do in advance of your first donation can play a huge role if you will be successful or not.  The last thing anyone wants is for you to get to a plasma center and not be able to donate for some reason.  Some things are out of your control, but there is a lot you can do to make the process easier.  

There is a unique twist in the plasma industry.  Where you live will determine your eligibility to donate.  This isn’t like a store where anyone can walk in and buy whatever you want.  You must be what they call a “Community Based Donor”. This means you have to live within a certain distance of the plasma center where you want to donate.  If you live within 30 miles of the location, you should be fine. If you are 30+ miles away, you should call to check if you can donate before you drive all the way there.  It’s horrible when we have to turn someone away from donating after they drove 40 miles to get there.

Once you know you can donate at that center, you will want to gather all the necessary documents.  Before you can even start the donation process, you will need to show:

ID for plasma donation
  • Photo ID: Driver’s License, Passport, Other Govt or State issued ID (Military ID, School ID)
  • Proof of residency: Utility bill, lease, Driver’s license
  • Social Security Number: Social Security Card, W-2 or paycheck stub, Individual Taxpayer ID Number (ITIN)

The proof of SSN is the one everyone seems to forget, just having an ID is not acceptable.  Also, the names on your ID & SSN will need to be an exact match.

Once you have all your paperwork in order, make sure your body is in the best shape to complete your first donation.  This usually involves a few things. 

  • Hydrate:  You will want to be very well hydrated before your first donation.  This has a few benefits. It will help your veins become more visible to make the needle stick easier.  Also, since plasma is mostly water, it will help reduce any side effects of your donation. This one is critical!
  • Food:  You should eat a healthy meal or snack within two hours of your visit.  Avoid fatty foods and focus on foods high in protein and iron.
  • Smoke/Vape:  Don’t use any type of nicotine product within 1 hour of your donation
  • Alcohol:  Avoid alcohol the night before and the day of your donation
  • Well rested:  Get a good night’s sleep the night before your donation
  • General health:  If you aren’t feeling well, try again later when you feel better
hydrate before plasma donation

In addition to the items above, there are some other plasma donation requirements:

  • Age:  Must be over 18.  There is some variation on the top end of the range. If you are over 65, you should call the center to see if you can donate.
  • Weight:  Must be at least 110 lbs. There is no actual upper end, but there could be a limit based on the donation bed.  I’ve seen 350 lbs to 400 lbs as the limit for certain types of donor beds.

Now that you’re prepared for your first donation, you can head to the center to become a new plasma donor!

Step 1:  Check-In

When you first arrive at the plasma center, it can be a little overwhelming.  You will probably see lines of people around and it can appear unorganized. I’ve heard from several people that it reminds them of the DMV.  Some centers are very busy so it may be confusing on where you should go or what to do. Look for a sign that calls out for New Donors or there should be a check-in counter. 

The individual at the check-in counter will ask for your documentation. They will make sure you have everything you need and things match up.  Once your identity is verified, you are ready to move to the next step.

Step 2:  Screening

Donor Screening is the initial process to see if you are physically eligible to donate.  There are three steps to this process: vital check, blood sample, and registry check.

A technician will take your key vitals to ensure you are healthy enough to donate.  This will include your blood pressure, pulse, temperature and weight. Your results will need to fall in an approved range to be eligible to donate.

The weight measured at this step is important.  It will determine the amount of plasma that will be collected.  This may also impact your payment as some companies compensate based on donor weight.  

You will also get a finger prick to collect a small blood sample.  This is to do a quick check on the total protein and hemoglobin in your blood.  The proteins in your plasma help keep you healthy. This test will determine if you have enough proteins to give up during your donation. 

finger prick vital check plasma donation

The Hemoglobin (or Hematocrit) test will measure how much of your blood is made up of red blood cells.  They may talk about testing your iron levels, which is a part of this test as most of your body’s iron is in the red blood cells. 

Next, they will run your information against the National Donor Deferral Registry (NDDR).   This is an industry-wide database of people who are ineligible to donate plasma. If there are multiple plasma centers in the area, they may also check the Cross Donation Check System.  This tracks people who may have donated across different locations.

Your picture and a fingerprint may also be taken to help identify you in the future.

Step 3:  Questionnaire

This step involves some detailed questions about your medical history and current health.  Most of the time you will use an electronic kiosk or tablet to complete the questionnaire.

Expect some of the questions to be very personal. They will ask about your sex life, STDs, drug use, jail time, and other potentially sensitive topics.  This information will be confidential and is critical to keeping you, the staff and potential patients safe. If you are not comfortable sharing this type of information, you may not want to go through this process.  

Some questions are pretty simple and not a big deal:

  • Feeling healthy and well today?
  • Currently taking an antibiotic or other medication for an infection?
  • In the past two months, donated whole blood, platelets or plasma at another center?
  • In the past twelve months, gotten a tattoo or had one touched-up?

Others can be more personal:

  • Received money, drugs, or other payment for sex?
  • Used needles to take drugs, steroids, or anything not prescribed by your doctor?
  • Male Donors: Had sexual contact with another male?
  • Had sexual contact with a prostitute or anyone else who takes money or drugs or other payment for sex?
  • Been in juvenile detention, lockup, jail, or prison for more than 72 consecutive hours?
  • Had or been treated for syphilis or gonorrhea?

And some can seem odd:

  • From 1980 through 1996:  Were you a member of the U.S. military, a civilian-military employee, or a dependent of a member of the U.S. military?
  • From 1980 to the present, did you:  Spent time that adds up to four years or more in France?
  • From 1980 to the present, did you:  Receive a blood transfusion in the United Kingdom or France?

(FYI, they are trying to figure out if you are at risk for Mad Cow disease that was in Europe in the 80s – 90s)

Step 4:  Physical

If everything is going well, you will move to the physical exam. This is the last step before the actual donation.  It’s like an annual check-up you receive from a doctor, but not as in-depth. The person conducting the physical will usually be a licensed nurse or EMT. 

Physical exam for plasma donation

These exams will take place in a private room.  You can request to have an examiner who is the same sex, although most of the staff who do these exams are female.  There should not be a need to undress for any part of the physical exam. 

The exam will include the following types of checks:

  • Heart and lung
  • Mouth, nose, and ear exam
  • Reflex testing
  • Lymph node exam
  • Abdominal exam
  • Skin check

The medical professional will also discuss your responses to the questionnaire.  Based on your answers, they may need to get more information or details. You will also need to document any medications you are currently taking.  If there are any concerns about your health, you may have to get written approval from your doctor before you can donate.

Step 5:  Donation

Congratulations, if you made it this far you are now ready to complete your first plasma donation.  This process is called plasmapheresis. It involves the removal of your blood and a machine will separate out the plasma.  Once removed, a bottle or bag will collect your plasma which should have a yellow or straw color. The process will reverse with the remaining blood pumped back into your body.  This will occur over a few cycles depending on how much plasma collected.

Plasma donation machine

The process of removing your blood, separating the plasma, and putting it back into your body may sound a little crazy.  Don’t worry, it is a very sanitary and safe process. Each donation will use sterile and disposable supplies. Your blood will never come in contact with the machine so there is no risk of contamination.  The center staff goes through significant training on how to handle blood-related items. 

To start, you’ll be assigned to a chair/bed and asked which arm you would prefer to donate with.  You may not have a choice if only one arm was suitable for a donation. Once you are comfortable in your bed, a phlebotomist will prepare your arm.  If you have ever given blood or had a blood test, this will be very similar. 

First, your arm is cleaned and disinfected. To collect the plasma, there will be a vein puncture using a large needle.  The actual donation itself can take around 40 minutes. There are a couple of things that can influence how long it will take.  The amount of plasma they are taking and how well your blood is “flowing”.  

plasma donation needle stick venipuncture

During the whole process, there will be a staff member assigned to check in on you.  The machines are also programmed to sound an alarm if it senses a problem. Let someone know right away if you are not comfortable or something doesn’t feel right.  Although somewhat rare, people can have reactions during the process. The longer they are left alone, the more serious the reaction can become – so speak up. You can find out more about the potential side effects of donating plasma here.

You will also be hooked up to a few IV bags.  These are to help with the donation process:

  • Anti-Coagulant:  Sometimes referred to as citrate, it’s used to prevent your blood from clotting. 
  • Saline:  Used to help replenish the plasma.  Not all companies will provide saline during a donation.

Here are a few pro tips as you prepare for your first donation.

  • Use the restroom before starting your donation.  When you donate, you’re hooked up to a machine for around 40 minutes.  By the time you get to the actual donation, an hour or two could have passed from when you started.  If you came prepared and are well hydrated, you could see how this could be a problem. Plus they also provide saline for most donations, which could add to the need to use the restroom.
  • There have been many people who stopped the process midway to use the restroom.  Once this happens, you cannot pick back up from where you left off. This could impact your compensation if the full donation process is not completed.
  • Speaking of saline, it is at room temperature when provided.  That may seem okay, but your actual body temperature is much warmer.  When pumped into your body, this may cause you to feel cold and get the chills.  I would recommend bringing a jacket or blanket to keep warm during the process if you are the type who gets cold easily.

Plasma donation payment

Now that you’ve completed your first donation, you can get paid!  During the onboarding process, you should get a prepaid debit card for your donation payments.  How much you will get compensated will vary from center to center. I have a detailed outline of how to maximize your money by donating plasma here.

After your donation

They will want to keep you around for 10-15 minutes to make sure you do not have any reactions.  Most people are in a rush to get out and say they feel fine, but it is important to make sure you are okay.  Like blood donation, some people may feel lightheaded or dizzy after the donation.  

You should stick around for a bit to see how your body reacts to make sure you don’t faint or pass out. Some of the worst issues I’ve seen are when a donor faints while walking, which can result in them hitting their head or other injuries.  That is something that can be easily avoided by just resting or telling the staff if you feel lightheaded. Don’t try to power through it on your own.      

Here are some other things to consider when you leave the center.

  • If you feel lightheaded, sit down and let someone know right away
  • Don’t do any strenuous activity such as lifting weights, working out, running, etc
  • Stay well hydrated
  • Eat a meal that is rich in protein and iron to start replenishing your plasma
  • Avoid nicotine and alcohol

How long does donating plasma take

The time commitment as a first time donor can be pretty significant.  Your first visit will probably be 3-4 hours to go through the entire process.  That will depend on the location and how busy they are. There could be lots of lines and waiting during this process so be prepared with something to pass the time.  A fully charged phone is pretty crucial!

I recommend checking if you can schedule a new donor appointment on their website or by calling the location.  That may shorten your wait time versus walking in. Don’t let the length of the first visit scare you off. After the first donation, your normal donations should take about half the time.

Will I go through this same plasma donation process every time

No, your first donation will always be the most complicated and take the longest.  For your future visits, it will take around 90 minutes as you will only go through 3 of the 5 steps.  You don’t need to bring in all the paperwork again (Step 1) and won’t need the physical exam (Step 4).

If you become a regular donor, you will need to retake the physical every 12 months to make sure you are still healthy.

Why is the 2nd plasma donation so important

You should feel great that you made it through your first plasma donation!  But your path to saving lives isn’t done yet. FDA guidelines require two separate tests on a donor’s plasma to make sure it is safe. 

After the first donation, many people aren’t sure if this is right for them.  Give it one more shot before deciding as it usually goes better the 2nd time and it is much faster.  That way your plasma can make it to the patients in need.

Reasons you can’t donate plasma

At various points in the process, there may be a complication that stops you from donating plasma.  This is called a deferral. It is pretty common for new donors to get some type of deferral and it even happens to regular donors as well. 

Most of the deferrals are generally pretty minor and you can try again in a few days.  These usually come from one of the vitals or tests being out of range. Your pulse might be too high on a given day or your total protein might be too low.  The other common issue could be your veins are hard to see or stick, which is why hydration is important.

Anything else you need to know?

I hope this guide has helped answer any questions you may have about becoming a new plasma donor.  Is there anything I missed? Leave a comment with any other questions you still have so I can make this guide better.

This is part of a series of articles I have on donating plasma.  Other topics include: