About Organ Donation

In this section, we answer your frequently asked questions on the process of organ and tissue donation.

  • What is organ donation?

    Organ donation transplants healthy organs and tissues from one person into another.

    The generosity of donors and their families gives over 3,000 people in the UK a new lease of life every year.

    Transplants are the best possible treatment for most people with organ failure.

  • Why are more donors needed?

    Transplants are very successful but the number of people needing a transplant is expected to rise steeply. This is due to an ageing population, an increase in kidney failure and scientific advances which mean that more people are now able to benefit from a transplant.

    While the number of organs available for transplant has increased, there is still a very large shortfall. Less than 1% of people die in circumstances where they are able to donate their organs. Because organs have to be transplanted very soon after death they can only be donated by someone who has died in hospital.

    Many people have not recorded their decision about donation or discussed it with their families. The UK has amongst the highest number of family refusals to organ donation in Europe. This is because when families do not know their loved ones’ donation decision, they are more likely to say no. That is why we have brought in a soft opt-out system for organ donation in Wales. It will make it easier for people to become a donor.

  • Which organs can be transplanted?

    Kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and the small bowel can all be transplanted.

    Techniques are improving all the time and we may soon be able to transplant other parts of the body to help even more people.

  • What is tissue donation?

    Tissue donation transplants healthy tissues such as corneas, skin, bone, tendons, cartilage and heart valves to help others.

    Every year thousands of people with a severe eye disease or injury have their sight restored by donated corneas.

    Bone, tendons and cartilage are used for reconstruction after an injury or during joint replacement surgery. A bone transplant can prevent limb amputation in patients suffering from bone cancer.

    Heart valves are used to help children born with heart defects and adults with diseased or damaged valves. Skin grafts are used to treat people with severe burns.

    Most people can donate tissue. Unlike organs, it may be possible to donate tissue up to 48 hours after a person has died.

    Reproductive organs and tissue are not taken from deceased donors.

  • If I become a donor does the colour of my skin make a difference?

    No – anyone can become a donor in the right circumstances. People with rare tissue types may only be able to receive a well-matched organ from someone of the same ethnic origin. So it is important that people from all ethnic backgrounds donate organs.

    Successful transplants are carried out between people from different ethnic groups wherever the matching criteria are met.

  • Could my face or limbs be used for transplant?

    Deemed consent does not apply to face, limbs or sexual organs.

    These types of transplant require express consent - either from you during your lifetime or from your family after death.

  • Can a deceased person donate sperm or eggs for future use?

    Deemed consent does not apply to sperm and eggs. While it is possible to retrieve sperm or eggs it is illegal to store either or to create an embryo without the prior, written consent of the donor.

  • How do they know you are really dead?

    Organs are only removed for transplant after a person has died. Death is confirmed by doctors at consultant level who are independent of the transplant team. Death is confirmed in the same way for people who donate organs and those who do not.

    The family are kept fully informed and if organ donation is possible the organ donor register is checked and discussions are had with family members.

  • Can you be kept alive with machines?

    No, not if brain stem death has been confirmed. In these cases, a ventilator will keep the body supplied with oxygen so the heart will continue to beat and circulate blood. This preserves the organs so they can be donated for transplant. When the ventilator is turned off the heart will stop beating within a few minutes.

  • Can I be sure doctors will try to save me if I am registered as a potential organ donor, or if my consent could be deemed?

    Yes. A doctor’s primary focus is to try and save a patient’s life. If, despite their efforts, the patient dies, organ and tissue donation can then be considered. A completely different team of donation and transplant specialists would be called in to speak to their family.

  • Does donation leave the body disfigured?

    Organs and tissue are always removed with care and respect.

    Organ donation takes place in an operating theatre under sterile conditions with specialist doctors. Afterwards the incision is carefully closed and covered by a dressing.

    Tissue can be removed in an operating theatre, mortuary or funeral home. The operation is carried out by specialist healthcare professionals who always ensure that the donor is treated with respect and dignity.

    Only those organs and tissue specified by the donor or their family will be removed.

  • Can people buy or sell organs?

    No. The transplant laws in the UK ban the sale of human organs or tissue.

Donor Medical History

  • Are donors screened to identify if they have a transmissible disease?

    Yes, in most circumstances. Having a medical condition does not necessarily prevent you from becoming an organ or tissue donor. The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is made by a healthcare professional, after considering your medical history.

    There is only one condition where organ donation is ruled out completely. A person cannot become an organ or tissue donor if they have, or are suspected of having, CJD. In very rare cases, the organs of donors with HIV or hep C have been used to help others with the same conditions. This is only ever carried out when both parties have the condition. All donors have rigorous checks to guard against infection.

  • Can I be a donor if I have an existing medical condition?

    Yes, in most circumstances. Having a medical condition does not necessarily prevent a person from becoming an organ or tissue donor. The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is made by a healthcare professional, taking into account your medical history.

    There is only one condition where organ donation is ruled out completely. A person cannot become an organ or tissue donor if they have, or are suspected of having, CJD. In very rare cases, the organs of donors with HIV or hep C have been used to help others with the same conditions. This is only ever carried out when both parties have the condition. All donors have rigorous checks to guard against infection.

Transplant recipients

  • Can I agree to donate to some people and not to others after my death?

    No. Donated organs and tissue cannot be accepted unless they are freely donated. The only restriction allowed is which organs or tissues are to be donated.

    If you wish to choose which organs and tissues you want to donate you will need to join the Organ Donor Register to record your wishes.

  • Could my donated organs and tissue go to a private patient?

    Possibly. Patients entitled to treatment on the NHS are always given priority for donated organs. These include UK citizens, members of Her Majesty's forces serving abroad and patients covered by a reciprocal health agreement with the UK.

    Other patients would only be offered an organ if there were no suitable patients entitled to treatment under the NHS. Every effort is made to ensure that a donated organ does not go to waste if there is someone who can benefit.

    Donated tissue is made available to any hospital in the UK where there is a patient in need.

  • Could any of my organs or tissue be given to someone in another country?

    Yes, possibly. There is an agreement that any organs that cannot be matched to UK patients are offered to patients in other European countries. Likewise, UK patients benefit from organs offered by other European countries. This co-operation increases the chance of a suitable recipient being found, ensuring that precious organs do not go to waste. Tissue might also be offered to patients in other countries.

  • Would a donor's family ever know who the recipient was?

    Confidentiality is always maintained, except in the case of living donors who usually already know each other.

    If the family wish, they will be given some brief details such as the age and sex of the person or persons who have benefited from the donation. Patients who receive organs can obtain similar details about their donors. It is not always possible to provide recipient information to donor families for some types of tissue transplant.

    Those involved may want to exchange anonymous letters of thanks or good wishes through the transplant co-ordinators and in some instances donor families and recipients have arranged to meet.

  • If someone desperately needs an organ, is there any point in making a special appeal?

    Yes and no. Any special appeal usually results in more people agreeing to become donors and can increase the number of organs available.

    However, family appeals through the newspapers and television will not result in an organ immediately becoming available for the person on whose behalf the appeal was made. The patient will still be on the transplant list, just like everyone else, and the rules that govern the matching and allocation of donor organs to recipients still apply.

  • Who will get my organs and tissue if I became a donor?

    Many things need to match or be very close to ensure a successful organ transplant. Blood group, age and weight are all taken into account. For kidneys another important factor is tissue type which is much more complex than blood grouping. The best results can be achieved if a perfect match is found.

    There is a national, computerised list of patients waiting for an organ transplant. The computer will identify the best matched patient for an organ or the transplant unit to which the organ is to be offered. Normally, priority is given to patients who most urgently need a transplant. NHSBT operates the transplant list and donor organ allocation system. It works round the clock, every day of the year and covers the whole of the UK.

    Tissue is very occasionally matched, e.g. for size and tissue type, but otherwise is freely available to any patient in need of a transplant.

The Organ Donor Register

  • What is the NHS Organ Donor Register?

    The NHS Organ Donor Register is a confidential database. It allows people to register their organ donation decision and if the person could become a donor it allows doctors and nurses in hospitals to be able to see that decision. The NHS Organ Donor Register is a UK-wide and run by NHS Blood and Transplant.

  • Who can join the NHS Organ Donor Register?

    Everyone who can understand organ donation, whatever your age, health, ethnicity or sexuality, can register their decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register.

    By adding your decision to the Register you are recording your organ donation decision.

    Children can add their decision to the Register, but their parents or guardians would be asked to provide their consent should the child's death lead to donation being considered.

    In Wales, since 1 December 2015, if you do not register an organ donation decision (opt in or out) then you will be treated as having no objection to being a donor and your consent could be deemed.

  • Do I need to carry a donor card if I register an opt in decision on the register?

    No. But many people like to keep one to remind them of their donation decision. It can also help start a conversation with family and friends about their organ donation decisions and encourage others to think about organ donation.

    If you register a decision – opt in or opt out- you will be sent a letter confirming this from NHS Blood and Transplant.

  • Is there an age limit for adding your decision to the NHS Organ Donor Register or becoming a donor?

    There is no age limit for recording your organ donation decision on the register. It is the donor's physical condition, not age, which is the deciding factor for most donations.

    For cornea donation there is currently an upper age limit of 80 years. There is also an age limit of 60 years for the donation of heart valves and tendons. For other tissue donation, such as bone and skin, there is no age limit.

    Organs from people in their 70’s and 80’s have been transplanted successfully.

    Specialist healthcare professionals decide, in each case, which organs and tissues are suitable for donation.

  • Do people who have registered an opt in decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register definitely become organ donors?

    No. Less than 1% of people die in circumstances where they are able to donate their organs. Many of those who die in these ways will not be on the register.

    If someone dies who has not registered an organ donation decision (opt in or out), then they will be treated as having no objection to being a donor and their consent could be deemed. Their family will still be involved in the process and will be able to say if they knew that their loved one did not want to be a donor.

  • Can I agree to donate some organs or tissue and not others?

    Yes. If you choose to add your opt in decision to the NHS Organ Donor Register, then you can specify which organs you would wish to donate. Just tick the appropriate boxes on the form. Don’t forget to let your family know your organ donation decision.

  • My relative wants to be a donor. What do I need to do when they die?

    Tell the healthcare professionals who are caring for your relative or are helping you immediately after their death (this could be hospital staff, a police officer, coroner's officer or GP) that they wanted to donate. The earlier you are able to tell staff, the more likely it is that donation can take place.

  • Could organs or tissues that are removed for transplant be used for research purposes?

    Organs and tissue that cannot be used for transplant will only be used for medical or scientific research purposes if your family gives specific permission.

  • How is organ donation different from organ retention?

    The problems of organ retention arose because proper consent was not obtained from families for organs and tissues removed at post-mortem to be kept for research or other purposes. As a result of these problems the law was changed and the Human Tissue Act 2004 was introduced.

    Organs and tissue are only removed for transplant if express consent has been given, or, since 1 December 2015 in Wales, if consent has been deemed.

  • Can I leave my body for medical education or research after I have donated my organs?

    No. Bodies are unlikely to be accepted for teaching if organs have been donated or if there has been a post-mortem examination. However, if only the corneas are to be donated, a body can be left for research.

    To find out more about whole body donation for research purposes contact:

    The Human Tissue Authority
    151 Buckingham Palace Road
    SW1W 9SZ

    Tel: 020 7269 1988
    email: enquiries@hta.gov.uk

  • Do I need to discuss my decision with my family and close friends?

    Yes. It is very important as they need to know what you would like to happen after your death so they can confirm your wishes to NHS staff.

    If you register your decision without telling your loved ones, it may come as a surprise when they are trying to deal with their loss.

  • What will happen if my relatives do not feel comfortable with organ donation?

    We know that in most cases families will agree to donation if they knew that was their loved one's decision.

    If organ donation is a possibility, then healthcare professionals will discuss the matter sensitively with the family. They will be able to explain to the family whether the person’s consent has been expressly given or if it could be deemed under the new system in place. The family will be very much encouraged to accept the dead person's decision but there are inevitably going to be times when families do not want to go ahead because they are very distressed about the idea of organ donation. A skilled organ donation nurse will try to explore with the family why they feel this way but donation would never be forced.

  • What if I have no family or other relatives?

    You can register you decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register, but to become an organ donor healthcare professionals will need to speak to someone at the time of your death who can advise on your medical and social history. This may be your GP but it is best to tell the person closest to you in life, a friend of long standing or a close colleague, about your decision. It is very unlikely that donation would go ahead if there are no family or friends present.

    In Wales, your consent will not be deemed if no family members are present.

  • Do I need to write about my organ donation decision in my will?

    No. By the time your will is read it is likely to be far too late for you to become a donor. This is why it is so important to let your family and friends know. You can also register your decision on the NHS Organ Donation Register.

  • What happens if my parents, guardian or a person with parental responsibility registered me when I was young without my knowledge or agreement?

    You can contact NHS Blood and Transplant (who manage the NHS Organ Donor Register) at any time to check if you are recorded on the Register or to ask to amend or remove your details. NHS Blood and Transplant will write to you to confirm that they have done this.

    NHS Blood and Transplant are intending to write to all people who were added to the register as children, when they reach the age of 18. So people know about the registration and can change the decision if they want to.

    Remember that removing your details from the Register is not the same as opting out of organ donation. If you have not registered organ donation decision on the Register and you are over 18, you will be treated as having no objection to organ donation and your consent could be deemed.

    You can check if you are on the register by:

    • Calling 0300 123 23 23 (Calls to this phone line will be answered by the NHS Blood and Transplant Service), or
    • Writing to NHS Organ Donor Register, Freepost RRZK-SHUX-SBCK, NHS Blood and Transplant, Fox Den Road, Stoke Gifford, Bristol BS34 8RR.


1st December 2015The time when Wales has changed the way you become an organ donor.

days until the way you become an organ donor will change in Wales.

1st December 2015

Register your organ donation decision

The information that you provide is sent securely and directly to NHS Blood and Transplant. You can see their data protection statement on the NHSBT website


Who will the system change apply to?

Who will the system change apply to?

The new law will apply to adults who live and die in Wales.

You will need to live in Wales for 12 months or more and it won’t apply to some adults such as those who may lack mental capacity.

See ‘who will the system change apply to?’