This week we’re running a series in collaboration with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service looking at blood: what it actually does, why we need it, and what happens when something goes wrong with the fluid that gives us life. Read other articles in the series here.
Blood is vitally important for our body. As it’s pumped around our body through veins and arteries, it transports oxygen from our lungs to all of the other organs, tissues and cells that need it. Blood also removes waste products from our organs and tissues, taking them to the liver and kidneys, where they’re removed from the body.
About 45% of our blood consists of different types of cells and the other 55% is plasma, a pale yellow fluid. Blood transports nutrients, hormones, proteins, vitamins and minerals around our body, suspended in the plasma. They provide energy to our cells and also signal for growth and tissue repair. The average adult has about five litres of blood.
The different types of blood cells include red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells, and these are produced in the bone marrow, in the centre of our bones.
Red blood cells
Red blood cells are essential for transporting oxygen around the body. Red cells are very small, donut-shaped cells with an average lifespan of 120 days within the body. They contain a protein called haemoglobin, which contains iron and binds very strongly to oxygen, giving blood its red colour.
Red cells are flexible and able to squeeze through even the tiniest of our blood vessels, called capillaries, to deliver oxygen to all of the cells in our body. When the red cells reach our organs and tissues, haemoglobin releases the oxygen.
Platelets are even smaller than red blood cells. In fact, they are tiny fragments of another much larger type of cell, called a megakaryocyte, which is located in the bone marrow. Platelets are formed by budding off from the megakaryocyte. Platelets have an average lifespan of eight to 10 days within the body, so they are constantly being produced. When body tissue is damaged, chemicals are released that attract platelets.
Platelets clump together and stick to the damaged tissue, which starts to form a clot to stop bleeding. Many of the proteins that help the clot to form are contained in plasma. Platelets also release growth factors that help with tissue healing.
Infographic – From animal experiments to saving lives: a history of blood transfusions
White blood cells
Blood also carries white blood cells, which are an essential part of our immune system. Some white cells are able to kill micro-organisms by engulfing and ingesting them. Other types of white cells, called lymphocytes, release antibodies that help to fight infection.
Blood cells don’t act alone; they work together for normal body function. For example, when we cut our skin, platelets help plug the cut to stop it bleeding, plasma delivers nutrients and clotting proteins, white cells help to prevent the cut from becoming infected, and red cells deliver oxygen to help keep the skin tissue healthy.
Sometimes patients who are having surgery, cancer treatment or when they are seriously injured need a blood transfusion. This is usually because they have lost a lot of platelets, red cells or plasma, or because their cancer treatment has killed many of their blood cells.
In Australia, blood is donated by voluntary blood donors at the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. A typical whole blood donation is just over 450 mL, and it takes around ten minutes to collect. Every time a donation is made, the donor is screened for infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV, so these aren’t transferred to the patient receiving the blood.
After donation, the blood is separated into its different parts: platelets, red cells and plasma, which are known as blood components. White cells are removed because they can cause problems in patients who receive them. Once the blood has been separated, it’s stored until it’s needed by hospitals. The red blood cells are stored in a refrigerator and the plasma is frozen. The red cells can be stored for six weeks, and the plasma can be stored for up to a year. Platelets can only be stored for five days. When a hospital needs blood it’s packed into special blood shippers, and transported to the hospital blood bank to be transfused