What is blood?
Blood is an essential life force, constantly flowing and keeping your body working. Blood is mostly fluid but contains cells and proteins that literally make it thicker than water.
Blood has four parts: Red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma. Each part has specific and important tasks, from carrying oxygen to carrying out waste products.
Your blood also acts like a kind of health barometer. Unusual blood test results may be the first sign of changes that could point to serious illness. This article focuses on how blood works and conditions that affect blood health.
What does blood do?
Blood flowing through your blood vessels is responsible for many things:
- It carries oxygen and nutrients throughout your body.
- It forms blood clots to manage bleeding.
- It protects your body from infections.
- It carries waste products.
- It regulates your body temperature.
What are the parts of blood?
Blood has four parts. Red blood cells and plasma make up most of your blood. White blood cells and platelets, sometimes referred to as the buffy coat, account for less than 1% of your blood.
Red blood cells
Red blood cells (erythrocytes) account for 45% of your blood. They carry oxygen throughout your body. They also help to clear waste from your body. These cells:
- Get their distinctive color from the protein hemoglobin. Hemoglobin helps the red blood cells deliver the oxygen other cells need to produce energy.
- Can squeeze through the tiniest sections of your circulatory system. (Your circulatory system includes the network of capillaries, veins and arteries that blood moves through on its journey throughout your body).
- Have a short life span. Red blood cells live for about 120 days before they’re replaced with new cells.
White blood cells
Your white blood cells (leukocytes) account for less than 1% of your blood and are part of your immune system. When invaders such as viruses or cancerous cells launch attacks, your white blood cells move quickly to find and destroy them. White blood cells can move from capillaries into your tissues. There are five types of white blood cells:
- Neutrophils kill bacteria and fungi and remove foreign debris.
- Lymphocytes consist of T-cells, natural killer cells and B-cells that protect against viral infections and produce antibodies that help you fight infection.
- Basophils react to allergens.
- Eosinophils find and destroy parasites and cancerous cells and assist basophils with your allergic response.
- Monocytes find and destroy viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoa. They also remove damaged cells.
Your platelets (thrombocytes) are first on the scene any time your blood vessels are damaged and bleeding. Platelets manage bleeding by forming blood clots that seal damaged blood vessels so you don’t lose large amounts of blood. Platelets:
- Account for less than 1% of your blood. There are tens of thousands of platelets in a single drop of your blood.
- Get their name from how they work in your blood. Platelets are the lightest part of your blood. They form in the shape of plates, flattening themselves against blood vessel walls as plasma and blood cells flow by.
- Have a coat of sticky proteins that act like Velcro®, helping platelets cling to broken blood vessels.
Your blood cells and platelets float in your plasma. Plasma is a yellowish fluid that accounts for 55% of your blood. Plasma is your blood’s utility player, covering many bases as it works to keep your body functioning. Some tasks plasma does include:
- Helping to clot blood and defend against invaders.
- Delivering hormones, nutrients and proteins to parts of your body and helping to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.
- Removing waste from cells and transporting it to your liver, lungs and kidneys for excretion.
- Maintaining your blood pressure and circulation.
- Regulating body temperature by absorbing and releasing heat.
What are blood types?
There are four blood types. The types are different depending on whether blood contains certain antigens. Antigens are substances that make your immune system react.
Where is blood located?
Blood flows throughout your body. It gets its start in your bone marrow, which contains stem cells. Stem cells create trillions of cells, including blood cells. Blood cells develop and mature in your bone marrow before they enter your blood vessels. Blood represents about 8% of your body weight.
Conditions and Disorders
What common conditions and disorders affect blood?
Blood cancer, blood disorders and a common cardiovascular disease affect blood. Blood cancers affect how your body produces blood cells. Blood disorders keep your blood from doing its job. Atherosclerosis is a cardiovascular disease that affects blood flow. In general, blood cancer and blood disorders have more overall impact on blood health than atherosclerosis.
Blood cancer happens when something disrupts how your body makes blood cells. If you have blood cancer, abnormal blood cells overwhelm normal blood cells. There are three blood cancer types:
- Leukemia, the most common blood cancer.
- Lymphoma, which is cancer of your lymphatic system. Your bone marrow, which produces blood cells, is part of your lymphatic system.
- Myeloma, which starts in your bone marrow and affects your plasma cells.
Blood disorders are noncancerous conditions that keep parts of your blood from doing their jobs. Blood disorders include anemias, blood clotting disorders and bleeding disorders.
Some blood disorders may not cause symptoms or require treatment. Others are chronic (lifelong) illnesses that require treatment but typically won’t affect how long you’ll live. There are also blood disorders that are serious illnesses and can be life-threatening.
Healthcare providers treat blood disorders by managing symptoms and treating any underlying conditions.
Anemia is the most common type of noncancerous blood disorder. It happens when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells. Sometimes people inherit anemia, but they may also acquire or develop it. There are many types of anemia. Some common anemias include:
Blood clotting disorders
A blood clotting disorder affects your platelets or your clotting factors (coagulation factors). Clotting factors are proteins in your blood that help your platelets manage bleeding. You may develop a blood clotting disorder (acquired blood clotting disorder) or inherit a genetic mutation that causes abnormal blood clotting.
Prothrombin gene mutation and Factor V Leiden syndrome are examples of inherited blood clotting disorders. Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) and disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) are examples of acquired blood clotting disorders.
Bleeding disorders happen when your blood doesn’t clot normally, causing you to bleed more than usual. Von Willebrand disease is the most common bleeding disorder in the U.S. Hemophilia, a rare inherited condition, is another example of a bleeding disorder.
How do I take care of my blood?
You can take care of your blood by:
- Developing healthy eating habits with a diet that’s a good balance of lean protein, whole grains and leafy vegetables.
- Protecting your immune system by practicing good hygiene and being vaccinated against common viruses.
- Asking a healthcare provider about supplements that may help support your immune system and blood.
- Using moderation if you drink beverages containing alcohol. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you limit consumption to one to two drinks a day.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your blood is a precious resource, constantly taking care of your body so it works as well as it should. Your blood carries oxygen to your cells so they can create energy. It helps your immune system defend your body against intruders. Blood also manages how much you bleed when you’re injured. While you can take care of your blood, you may not be able to avoid diseases that affect it. Fortunately, healthcare providers can treat most serious blood conditions, including blood cancers and blood disorders.
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