An exchange transfusion requires that the patient's blood be removed and replaced. In most cases, this involves placing one or more thin tubes, called catheters, into a blood vessel. The exchange transfusion is done in cycles, each one usually lasts a few minutes.
The patient’s blood is slowly withdrawn (usually about 5 to 20 mL at a time, depending on the patient’s size and the severity of illness). An equal amount of fresh, prewarmed blood or plasma flows into the patient's body. This cycle is repeated until the correct volume of blood has been replaced.
After the exchange transfusion, catheters may be left in place in case the procedure needs to be repeated.
In diseases such as sickle cell anemia, blood is removed and replaced with donor blood.
In conditions such as neonatal polycythemia, a specific amount of the child’s blood is removed and replaced with a normal saline solution, plasma (the clear liquid part of blood), or albumin (a solution of blood proteins). This decreases the total number of red blood cells in the body and makes it easier for blood to flow through the body.
Why the Procedure Is Performed
An exchange transfusion may be needed to treat the following conditions:
Neonatal polycythemia (dangerously high red blood cell count in a newborn)
General risks are the same as with any transfusion. Other possible complications include:
Changes in blood chemistry (high or low potassium, low calcium, low glucose, change in acid-base balance in the blood)
Heart and lung problems
Infection (very low risk due to careful screening of blood)
Shock if not enough blood is replaced
The infant may need to be monitored for several days in the hospital after the transfusion. The length of stay depends on what condition the exchange transfusion was performed to treat.
Maheshwari A, Carlo WA. Blood disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 97.
Saunthararajah S, Vichinsky EP. Sickle cell disease—clinical features and management. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ, Shattil SS, et al., eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 43.
John Goldenring, MD, MPH, JD, Pediatrician with the Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, San Diego, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.