Transfusion Reactions in Emergency Medicine Workup

Updated: Feb 29, 2016
  • Author: Eric M Kardon, MD, FACEP; Chief Editor: Barry E Brenner, MD, PhD, FACEP  more...
  • Print

Laboratory Studies

See the list below:

  • When a hemolytic transfusion reaction is suspected, send the donor blood back to the blood bank to determine whether the correct unit of blood was administered to the intended recipient. In addition, the blood bank should perform a repeat type, crossmatch, antibody screen, and direct and indirect Coombs tests. Other considerations with a hemolytic transfusion reaction include the following:

    • Free serum hemoglobin appears as a pink color of the serum in a clotted centrifuged specimen. This may be observed with as little as 5-10 mL of hemolyzed blood.

    • Serum bilirubin level peaks in 3-6 hours as the free hemoglobin is metabolized.

    • Haptoglobin binds to hemoglobin and the serum hemoglobin level falls, reaching its nadir in 1-2 days.

    • Examine urine for hemoglobinuria.

  • A repeat hemoglobin and hematocrit (H/H) fails to show the expected rise in hematocrit in patients developing intravascular or extravascular hemolysis.

  • In acute transfusion-related acute lung injury, leukopenia and eosinophilia may be present.

  • In GVH disease, the CBC will demonstrate pancytopenia and elevated liver enzymes levels. Electrolyte disturbances related to the diarrhea may be present.

  • For the patient undergoing a massive transfusion, serially measure the following parameters:

    • Platelet count, prothrombin time (PT), and activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT) should be checked after the transfusion of every 5 units of packed red cells and whenever signs or symptoms suggest a coagulopathy.

    • Potassium level

    • pH

    • Ionized calcium level should be measured in patients developing signs, symptoms, or ECG manifestations of hypocalcemia.

  • It is recommended that in the massively transfused patient, plasma and platelets be administered in response to the results of platelet count and coagulation function.

    • Plasma and platelets should never be given solely in response to the number of units of packed cells transfused.


Imaging Studies

See the list below:

  • In transfusion-related acute lung disease, the chest radiograph is consistent with noncardiogenic pulmonary edema. The cardiac silhouette is not enlarged. Bilateral infiltrates are in an alveolar pattern.


Other Tests

See the list below:

  • The electrocardiogram may demonstrate prolongation of the QT interval in the massively transfused patient who develops hypocalcemia.



See the list below:

  • Endotracheal intubation may be required if respiratory insufficiency complicates a severe hemolytic or anaphylactic reaction.

  • Hypoxemia severe enough to require endotracheal intubation occurs in 70-75% of patients with transfusion-related acute lung injury.

  • Place a Foley catheter in all patients with an intravascular hemolytic reaction to ensure continuous measurement of urinary output.

  • A careful assessment will often aid in differentiating transfusion-associated volume overload from transfusion-related acute lung injury. In some cases, however, making the correct diagnosis may be very difficult. In these cases, Swan-Ganz catheterization may provide useful information.