How to Avoid Ice Burn When Treating an Injury

The safest way to treat an injury and avoid skin damage

Experts often recommend using ice to soothe the pain, inflammation, and swelling caused by an injury. However, if you leave an ice pack on your injury for too long, or if you place it directly on your skin, this can lead to an ice burn or frostbite.

Here's what to know about how ice packs can cause burns and how to use ice on injuries safely.

Midsection Of Woman Holding Ice Pack On Hand
Dmitry Marchenko / EyeEm / Getty Images

How Ice Packs Cause Burns

Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but the ice that comes out of the freezer is likely to be much colder than that. Putting ice or any kind of chemical cold pack—homemade or otherwise—directly on the skin can lead to frostbite in minutes.

Ice crystals form in the skin cells and blood flow slows, depriving the tissues of oxygen. As it progresses, the ice burn causes permanent damage to your skin and underlying tissues. In severe cases, it can lead to gangrene (tissue death) and amputation.

Avoiding Ice Burns

When you use an ice pack, pay attention to how your skin feels. The first stage of ice burn is known as frostnip. Frostnip causes your skin to get red or pale with a tingling and prickly sensation. It’s a sign that you should remove the ice pack and warm the area so you don't damage your skin.

It can be helpful to use the acronym CBAN. This stands for cold, burn, ache, and numb. These are four sensations you feel when your skin is exposed to ice for too long. First, you’ll notice the cold, and soon after a burning feeling. After a few minutes, you may notice that the area feels achy before the skin finally feels numb. As soon as you feel any numbness, remove the ice to avoid causing ice burn.

Make sure to watch the clock. The time between the initial cold sensation and numbness can be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, so don’t leave an ice pack on the injury for more than that. A good rule of thumb is 20 minutes on followed by 20 minutes off. Never fall asleep with an ice pack on your skin.

Don’t put ice or ice packs directly on the skin. A plastic bag isn’t enough to protect your skin from ice burn. You should always wrap the ice in a towel or other thin cloth. 

When You Shouldn't Use Ice

Don’t use ice on your skin if it already feels numb. When your skin is numb or tingly, you may not be able to tell when the ice is causing damage. Also, don’t use an ice pack on an area that’s already injured with a blister or burn. When the skin is already damaged, you are more likely to develop an ice burn. 

Certain medical conditions, such as vascular disease and diabetes, may make your tissues more likely to be damaged with ice burn. If you have questions about your risk for frostbite, speak to your healthcare provider about whether it’s safe for you to ice your injury.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does frostbite look like?

    If you have mild frostbite, you may notice skin redness. More severe frostbite can have a blue, white, gray, or waxy color along with swelling and blisters. Severe cases may cause the skin to eventually turn black.

  • How do you treat an ice burn?

    Remove the ice pack. Soak the affected area in warm water, making sure the water is comfortable and not hot, for 30 minutes or less. Gently wash and dry the area and wrap in a sterile bandage. Do not rub your skin—it can cause further damage if you have frostbite. Seek medical care if you have signs of frostbite.

  • How long does an ice burn from an ice pack last?

    It varies based on the degree of injury. Mild ice burns may take a few days to heal. Deep, severe burns can take months and may require surgery to remove dead skin and tissue.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Millet JD, Brown RK, Levi B, et al. Frostbite: Spectrum of imaging findings and guidelines for management. Radiographics. 2016;36(7):2154-2169. doi:10.1148/rg.2016160045

  2. Cedars-Sinai. Frostbite.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Frostbite.

Additional Reading

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.