In Part 1 yesterday I looked at how blood doping works and is administered. Here in Part 2 I am going to concentrate on side effects and risks of blood doping…

Red blood cell count

There are some serious risks if your red blood cell count is higher than it should be. These include the risk of seizures, stroke, embolisms and heart attacks, due to the ‘thickening’ of the blood.


All of these are increased massively compared to a normal red blood cell count and can be fatal.

Risks if you are transfusing blood

There are the usual risks of using needles, such as risk of a variety of infections (from septicaemia to HIV) from improper equipment and procedures.

In clinical settings there is 1 infection per 500,000 blood transfusions however most blood doping transfusions are not done in a clinical setting so the risk is much higher.

There is also the risk, if you use blood other than your own, of an ABO incompatibility reaction, which is an immune response to having the wrong blood type in your system.

This is often fatal.

How is this tested?

At present, there are effective tests available to spot if you are taking EPO and transfusing blood that isn’t your own, however there are no tests at the moment that conclusively prove homologous blood doping.

blood doping_4The introduction of the biological athlete passport has been designed to combat this.

The idea is that after a certain number of blood tests you can make a sensible assumption as to what is the athlete’s normal red blood cell count, and then investigate if there are any anomalies.

This process is far from perfect, however recently anti-doping organisations have invested heavily in researching a conclusive test for homologous doping and hope to have a certified test soon (this was probably partly due to the recent press on blood doping)

The ethical debate

Aside from the physical side effects and risks that come with doping – there is the ethical debate.

Some of you may be reading this and say ‘there is no debate, doping is cheating’.

I’d say in principle this is right and I totally agree with you, but the scientist in me (I’m a scientist by trade) is curious. My personal stance on doping is that doping is cheating assuming that there are drug controls in place for your sport, which there are for almost every competitive sport.

What is the point of sport? Is it to see how far the body can really be pushed; to see what the absolute limits are of the human body? If the answer is yes then why can’t we see what the answer of the questions really are (in a safe, controlled, consenting environment)?

There are, after all, many bodybuilding competitions that do not test for steroids, for example.

It’s a debate that is far beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth thinking about.

Please comment if you have any views of your own on this; I am more than up for some healthy debate!

Connect with Expert Mike Trott.

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