Everything You Need to Know About Ice Burn

Medically reviewed by Graham Rogers, MD on May 22, 2017Written by Traci Angel on May 22, 2017

What is an ice burn?

An ice burn is an injury that can happen when ice or other cold things contact and damage your skin. Ice burns usually occur after prolonged exposure to freezing or below-freezing temperatures. For example, if you apply a cold pack directly to your skin, you might get an ice burn.

What are the symptoms of an ice burn?

An ice burn often looks like other types of burns, such as sunburns. You might notice a change in the color of the affected skin. For example, it might appear bright red. It might also turn a white or yellowish-gray color.

Other potential symptoms include:

  • numbness
  • itchiness
  • tingly feeling
  • pain
  • blisters
  • unusually firm or waxy skin

What causes ice burns?

An ice burn occurs when your skin comes into direct contact with ice or something else that’s very cold for an extended period of time. Ice or cold packs that are used to treat sore muscles and injuries can cause ice burns if you press them directly against bare skin. Prolonged contact with snow, cold weather, or high-velocity winds can also cause ice burns.

When you get an ice burn, the water in the cells of your skin freezes. It forms sharp ice crystals, which can damage the structure of your skin cells. Blood vessels near your skin also begin to constrict. This reduces the flow of blood to affected areas, causing further damage.

What are the risk factors for ice burns?

You may be at higher risk of ice burns and other cold-induced injuries if you spend a lot of time in cold conditions or high-velocity winds and don’t dress appropriately for those conditions.

Lifestyle habits and conditions that negatively affect your circulation or ability to detect injuries can also raise your risk of ice burns. For example, you’re at heightened risk if you:

Due to their fragile skin, younger children and older people are also at higher risk of developing ice burns.

How are ice burns diagnosed?

If you think you might be getting an ice burn, remove the source of cold immediately and take steps to gradually warm your skin up. Seek medical help right away if you experience any of the following:

  • Your skin remains numb and doesn’t begin to burn or tingle as it warms up.
  • Your skin is white and doesn’t regain a pinkish complexion as it warms up.
  • Your skin is white, cold, and hard when you touch it.

These may be symptoms of severe tissue damage that require treatment. You might also need medical attention if you develop blisters on a large area of skin. Your doctor will examine the affected area to determine an appropriate treatment plan.

How are ice burns treated?

To treat an ice burn, remove the source of cold and slowly warm your skin to bring it back to its normal temperature. To warm your skin:

  1. Soak the affected area in warm water for 20 minutes. The water should be around 104˚F (40˚C), and no more than 108˚F (42.2˚C).
  2. Repeat the soaking process if needed, taking 20-minute breaks between each soak.
  3. Apply warm compresses or blankets, in addition to the warm-water treatments.

Be careful not to use too much heat. That can make your burn worse.

If you develop blisters or an open wound, clean the area and bandage it to help keep it free from dirt or germs. Use gauze that won’t stick to your skin. It may also help to apply a soothing ointment to the affected area.

To relieve pain, consider taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Once your skin begins to heal, you may apply aloe vera or other topical gels to help ease discomfort.

Seek medical attention if you develop signs of severe tissue damage, such as skin that remains white, numb, cold, or hard after you try to gently warm it. Your doctor might prescribe medications, remove damaged tissue, or recommend other treatment options.

You should also contact your doctor if you develop symptoms of an infection, such as changes to the color of your burn, pus or greenish discharge, or fever. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics or other treatments.

What is the outlook for ice burns?

Depending on the severity of your burn, it could take a few days or even weeks to heal. You might have a scar afterward. In rare cases, your doctor might need to surgically amputate damaged tissues. But in most cases, you can expect a full recovery.

To help the healing process, keep the burned area away from ice and covered in the sun.

How can you prevent ice burns?

To prevent ice burns, keep a layer of clothing or a towel between your skin and sources of cold. For example, don’t apply a cold pack directly to your skin. Instead, wrap it in a towel first. Using a bag of frozen vegetables instead of a cold pack may also lower your risk of ice burns.

It’s also important to dress appropriately for cold weather and shelter your skin from high-velocity winds.

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