I am a medical transcriptionist, writer, photographer, wife, and mother. I learned the hard way not to put an ice pack directly on my skin.
When most people think of burns, they think of heat burns from things like flames, scalding substances, or sun exposure. We even call the most common cold-weather injury frostbite, not frost burn.
However, a burn from an ice pack, cold wrap, or gel pack (or ice in a plastic bag) can be just as serious as a burn from heat. How do I know this? I used a cold pack incorrectly and ended up with a second-degree burn, which is still healing.
If You Are Getting an Ice-Pack Burn . . .
• Remove the ice or cold pack immediately.
• Your skin will feel numb, tingly, or itchy.
• The skin where the ice pack was may have changed color or may have marks on it.
Ice Burn Remedies
To reverse the effects of the burn, bring the skin surface back to normal body temperature. Soaking the affected body part in warm water is the quickest way. Use warm—not hot—water (up to 104 but no hotter than 108 degrees).
- Soak for 20 minutes, take a 20-minute break, then repeat. Rewarming should occur gradually, as with frostbite treatment. Warm compresses will work too, but they need to be changed multiple times. Wrap the body part in warm towels or blankets. Be careful if using an electric blanket. Too much heat can make the burn worse.
Check the burned area for blisters. Blisters are a sign of a second-degree burn. In they are present, drain them or have a medical professional drain them for you to promote faster healing and avoid infection. Apply antibiotic ointment and a barrier ointment such as A&D or Vaseline to keep the blistered area from sticking to dressings.
Apply a non-stick gauze dressing. Keep it in place with stretchable bandaging tape. The wound should remain clean and dry at all times. Change the dressing frequently.
For second-degree burns, oral antibiotics may be necessary to avoid systemic infection.
If the burn is an open wound, keep it covered and do not apply anything except antibiotic ointment and sterile, non-stick dressings.
As the wound begins to heal, aloe vera gel can help hasten healing and prevent scarring. It can also be very drying. Never apply aloe vera directly to an open wound, as it may cause infection. Wait until the area has begun healing.
Avoid further exposure to ice and the sun. It may take months for an ice burn to heal and the skin may still remain scarred even after healing.
Preventing Cold Pack Burns
As I learned the hard way, the best way to prevent an ice pack burn is not to apply anything ice-cold directly to your skin. Always wrap ice or a cold pack in a towel before applying to skin.
My Cold Pack Burn Story
It all started for me when I fell on a rock in the snow. I broke a blood vessel in my leg and because I was already taking aspirin, it bled into my leg causing the area to swell. I was told to rest and apply ice packs to bring the swelling down. Unfortunately, I didn't think much about the potential for an ice burn and applied the cold pack directly to my leg. I literally never felt a thing.
When I removed the cold pack, it looked as if someone had taken a hot iron to my leg. There was an imprint of the large ice pack on my skin. It didn't hurt and I thought it would fade away. By the time I realized that the skin was coming "back to life," it was killing me—burning and itching like mad.
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It resulted in blistering, just as in the above video. I returned to the doctor and went on antibiotics to ward off an infection. I had already damaged the skin when I fell and now had added a burn to it.
This happened in February. It is now July and my leg is still scarred. It begins to blister immediately if exposed to the sun. It was an excruciatingly way to learn a lesson: Don't ever apply cold or ice packs directly to your skin. If only I had put a towel or something between the cold and my skin, it never would have happened. Even better would have been to use an ice pack or cold wrap with a protective cover.
Learn from my mistake and protect your skin! Be aware that ice and cold can cause as deadly a burn as heat or fire.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a pancreatic condition which requires ice packs 24 hours a day. Is there a better cloth that promotes the same cooling effect, but not to the point of burning? I am currently using cotton balls.
Answer: I would buy ice packs that have an outer covering already in place. That is what I did, but unfortunately directly applied them to my skin for too long. You can of course always use a 'buffer' material such as a hand towel, washcloth, or even a dish towel type material. The important part I found was just not to apply it for too long and again, not directly on my skin for long periods. "Official" ice packs that you purchase have specific instructions, and that can be particularly helpful. Also, many official ice packs have wrap around Velcro strapping that holds them in place. Physical or occupational therapists are great resources as well for any condition - how long should I keep an ice pack on and how many times per day is optimal? Those are great questions to ask.
Question: I'm putting Neosporin on my ice burn. Is that okay, or should I use something else?
Answer: I think it is okay - you might want to call your doc or doc's office though and double check. The only time ointments are not okay is if you have an open wound. Sometimes it is okay to put on but depending on how open the wound is, it can lead to the skin getting crinkly or macerated - too moist. You want to let it heal, and sometimes it does take dryness to let a wound heal all the way. Ointments of any kind of do the opposite in my experience. If in doubt, I always say call a doc office and ask!
Question: How long does it take for a cold pack burn to develop? I put an ice pack on my back and fell asleep.
Answer: It develops within hours, and it is quite noticeable. It is also very, very large. If you do not develop redness or a blister fairly soon after, you may be okay.
Question: If I had to do sports the day after I got the ice burn, could I wear a sock without hurting the skin?
Answer: If you use a nonstick bandage, it should be okay. I would not put anything directly against an ice burn especially if there is a blister as it could stick to the skin/blister.
Question: How long does it take to lose the redness of a cold pack burn?
Answer: Unfortunately, quite a while. I have darker skin and I found that my skin had a super sensitivity to the sun and remained discolored for at least six months. Even at 1 or 2 years after the burn, it would turn different colors if exposed to the sun for any length of time, so I just learned to avoid it. I think that it ends up damaging the skin by burning it so badly as well as even the superficial nerves. Even many years later, I can still feel a bit of a difference in that area of skin when exposed to lots of sun, so I just make sure I always keep sunscreen on it. The redness did last for a bit of time as well because of the skin damage.
Question: I got the ice pack burn on my cheeks and it has turned reddish brown. How can I reduce the reddish color?
Answer: I'm not sure how to get red color to go away immediately. It was my experience that it took a long time to fade. I would definitely ask your physician or call a nurse hotline at a dermatology clinic and see what they suggest. If coverup would work, that would be okay but would make sure and clear that with a qualified medical provider.
Question: Could I swim with an ice pack burn? The wound is not open.
Answer: You should be 'okay,' although it could aggravate the skin. It is not so much that you are going to contaminate anyone, but you might find it harder to heal, especially if you get too much sun on it before it has healed.
Question: What should I do for swelling related to ice pack burns?
Answer: I would recommend elevating the part of the body that it is on as much as possible to hopefully decrease swelling. You can try compression as well, but you don't want to compress anything too tight as it can then cause skin changes or damage. If you have a lot of swelling, I would definitely make sure a health professional look at it to be sure as sometimes it can be hard to correct swelling without diuretic therapy if it is a lot of swelling.
Question: How long does it take for a cold pack burn to develop?
Answer: It happens fairly quickly. I actually felt tingling and numbness and then looked at my leg and discovered the huge blister.
Question: What is the difference in the rash between severe ice pack burn and shingles?
Answer: Shingles is a virus that is caused by herpes. It is treated in different ways than an ice pack burn. I would consult a medical professional.
Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on February 25, 2019:
I would definitely make sure you go and visit with your doctor before going to a sunny place. Sun will definitely have some impact on a burn if that damaged skin is showing at all. My leg still does not tan the same way and when I tried to be out in the sun with my burned skin, it became red immediately so I avoided sun. It may peel off in its entirety, but again, not a doctor, so would make sure you ask a medical professional. Good luck!
VTWOMAN on February 24, 2019:
Ice burns suck!! I had been using cool sculpting for a couple weeks. I had been placing a barrier between ice and skin. One day i forgot the barrier and what a mistake. My entire lower belly turned redish brownish. It did not blister. I have been using emuaidMax. The skin that is damaged on top seems loose and one area peeled off. Is the rest of the area going to peel off eventually? I have 2 more weeks before I leave for a tropical vacation..
Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on August 12, 2018:
I would definitely have someone look at it. I tried to self-treat it and ended up with a huge blister that then popped and left a scar. The problem is when it is numb, we don't feel the pain but unfortunately we also don't notice the cold! You want to make sure that if you have blistering of any kind that it does not get infected also. I know 'stuff' but I just didn't want to take a chance with a burn that severe. I hope you will have someone look at it as soon as you can! Good luck.
Rosalie Roderer on August 11, 2018:
I was on my recliner and I placed an ice pack under my calf for about 20 minutes. It felt numb when I removed it. Then I attached a heat adhesive for several hours. Then I noticed I had an ice burn. The next thing I did was apply burn gel on it and wrapped it with gauze. My pain was so severe prior to doing this that I didn't think logically. What should I be doing.
Marc on March 25, 2018:
I had a deep contusion on my lower leg, realized far too late, four days, that it got worse and really swelled up and had a ridge where my leg pressed hard and dragged against a hard sharp surface. No cut, but a raised colorful ridge on my leg a few inches long. So I iced it, later did more icing with nothing between leg and store bought ice bag. Bad idea apparently, because a few weeks down the road the skin is proving to be dead skin. Quite a large area, several inches vertically and about 3-4 inches laterally. Blistering has gotten pretty bad today. I just started bandaging it 24 hours ago because skin was leaking water through and skin started to easily come off as I pressed my finger up and down my leg. That was scary. So I bought some Neosporin-like ointment and large bandages. Replacing the bandage 24 hours later, today, noticed a huge area puffed out with water underneath it. Poked a few tiny holes and drained it, but didn't remove the covering skin, this time, and reapplied some Neosporin and clean bandages. Will check more frequently. Main thing is to avoid an infection!
Ashishssb on December 21, 2017:
Really sorry to hear about your experience. I am in the exact same boat as you. Have you seen any improvement in the scar and have you been undergoing any treatment for it?
Michael Smith on September 05, 2017:
My burn started innocently enough, I have used a gel pack from Walgreens for years without problems. I brought them with me to a vacation home and stuck them in the freezer. I used them three times and realized the skin as red and it burned. The freezer at my home was set to about 20 degree the freezer at my vacation home was set at o degrees. I won't make that mistake again
Debbie on August 20, 2017:
I learned the hard way .I was using ice pack on feet.I really didn't know why my skin was so irritated and red.I could hardly walk on the balls of my feet.My skin feels tight and thin.I went to a Doctor and said she couldn't give me anything because she wasn't a foot Doctor ..left very disappointed. CAN YOU TELL ME WHERE TO PURCHASE AN ANTIBIOTIC CREAM?? OR CAN I USE VASELINE UNTIL I CAN GET IN TO SEE A FOOT DR.
Peggy Burghardt on August 13, 2016:
I too am struggling with a severe ice pack burn on my shoulder.
Bym on July 14, 2015:
Blisters should not be opened; best to let heal and if open on their own ok, otherwise leave alone
Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on July 25, 2012:
Indeed, who knew~ My daughter said "you have got to be kidding me, mom." I guess she was more up on it than the old bird. I figured ice was ice but afterwards when I actually thought about it....oh duh...there is that crazy thing called frostbite. And me in the medical profession? I shoulda been a nurse - ha ha - NOT~
drbj and sherry from south Florida on July 25, 2012:
So sorry, Audrey, you had to learn this awful lesson the hard way. But don't be too hard on yourself. I didn't even know you could get a burn from a cold pack. As I often am prone or sometimes supine to comment, 'Who knew?'