18 January 2013

The dangers of blood doping

One of the many forms of doping Lance Armstrong has admitted to is blood doping. What is this and how common and harmful is it?


One of the many forms of doping Lance Armstrong has admitted to is blood doping. What is this and how common and harmful is it?

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) blood doping is defined as the “misuse of certain techniques and/or substances to increase one’s red blood cell mass, which allows the body to transport more oxygen to muscles and therefore increase stamina and performance”.

There are three most commonly used methods for blood doping and these include erythropoietin (EPO), synthetic oxygen carriers and blood transfusions, all of which are prohibited under Wada’s List of Prohibited Substances and Methods.

Methods and risks


EPO is actually a hormone that is produced naturally by the human body. Read more about it here and is often used to prevent or treat anaemia caused by conditions such as Aids, cancer, or surgery.

However, misuse of this medicine carries great health risks, especially for athletes who use this substance simply to gain a competitive edge. EPO thickens the blood which leads to an increased risk of several deadly diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and cerebral or pulmonary embolism. According to Wada, the “misuse of recombinant human EPO may also lead to autoimmune diseases with serious health consequences”.

 Synthetic oxygen carriers

Synthetic oxygen carriers, such as haemoglobin based oxygen carriers (HBOCs) or perflurocarbons (PFCs), are purified proteins or chemicals having the ability to carry oxygen.

Wada says synthetic oxygen carriers appear useful for emergency therapeutic purposes when human blood is not available, the risk of blood infection is high or when there is not enough time to properly cross-match donated blood with a recipient. “However, their misuse for doping purposes carries the risk of cardiovascular disease in addition to various serious side effects (e.g., stroke, myocardial infarction, embolism).”

 Blood transfusions

When it comes to doping, there are two common types: autologous and homologous.

Autologous blood doping: the transfusion of one’s own blood, which has been stored (refrigerated or frozen) until needed. Wada is still working on a test for this type of doping.

Homologous blood doping: the transfusion of blood that has been taken from another person with the same blood type. This form of doping can be tested for.

Either form of blood transfusions carries some serious medical consequences. For example, the blood from another person may have a virus. Even using one’s own blood carries risks if the blood is not handled correctly or stored properly. Risks include an unnatural increase in red blood cell levels which then raises the risk of heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary or cerebral embolism.

(Sources: Wada, Health24)

(Amy Froneman, Health24, January 2013)

Read more:
A culture of doping in cycling
Lance Armstrong case: the dangers of doping


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