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Everything You Need to Know About Using a Cold Compress

Benefits

Ice can decrease swelling and inflammation and help stop bleeding. The cold restricts blood circulation, which in turn can numb the pain. It can also help limit any bruising.

You can keep instant cold packs in your home first-aid kit or in your car in case of emergencies. Instant cold packs have chemicals that activate when you squeeze the pack.

You can also make cold compresses with materials found right your own home. Even if you don’t like ice in your drinks, keeping extra ice in the freezer can be a good idea. That’s because ice can help you make a cold compress quickly, easily, and affordably.

Read on to learn everything about when to use a cold compress, how to make one, and for how long to use it.

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Instructions

How to make and use your own cold compress

To make your own cold compress, you’ll need:

  • ice (or frozen vegetables)
  • washcloth
  • water
  • plastic bag
  • towel

Step 1: Place ice cubes in a plastic bag. You can also substitute ice with a bag of frozen food. It’s best to use smaller vegetables so the bag will sit well on your skin. If you do need to use a bag of frozen food, fill up ice cube trays in the meantime. That way, you have a backup when the bag of frozen food thaws out.

You can also use a towel to make a cold compress if you don’t have ice:

  • Dampen a towel with cold water and place it in a sealable plastic bag.
  • Put the bag in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Cold compresses made from wet towels may be more comfortable for sensitive areas, such as the eyes.

Step 2: Run a washcloth under cold water and then wrap it around the plastic bag of ice. You can also dip the wash cloth into an ice bath if you don’t think it’s too cold against your skin.

Step 3: Place the homemade compress on your skin for up to 20 minutes.

Step 4: Dry the area with a towel after you’re done. You can also dab the skin as you hold the ice pack on yourself. The ice may start melting pretty quickly.

Reapply: For swelling, reapply the compress after two hours. Keep doing this until the swelling goes away.

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For injuries

How to use a cold compress for injuries

It helps to ice the injury within the first 48 hours. Immediate treatment is better.

Avoid using cold compresses for more than 20 minutes at a time. It’s best to alternate between 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off. You can keep icing for days if needed. There is no set amount of time in which you need to stop. However, consider making an appointment with the doctor if you don’t see improvement within 48 to 72 hours.

Also, be sure to follow the other steps in the RICE system if you have an injury:

Rest Avoid using the injured area. Only do activities as your body allows.
Ice Put a cold compress on the area as soon as possible. This will help reduce inflammation, bleeding, and bruising right away.
Compress Wrap the area with a bandage. Keep an elastic bandage in your first-aid kit for this.
Elevate Keep the injury above your heart to decrease swelling. For example, if you injury your leg, lay down with your leg on top of a stack of pillows. You can do the same with an arm injury.
 

You can also take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or Tylenol. Taking NSAIDs while using cold compresses can help treat pain more effectively.

Read more: How to treat a swollen eyelid »

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Other uses

Cold compress for fever, eyes, and more

You can place a cold compress anywhere on your body, including your eyes, lower back, forehead, and more. Injuries that aren’t life-threatening can often benefit from a cold compress. Ice can help relieve the pain from:

Cold compresses can be used on both adults and children. Be careful when using ice packs on babies, though. They may not be able to tolerate such cold temperatures. You may want to run a wash cloth under cold water and use that instead.

Read more: Sprains vs. strains »

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Caution

Risks and warnings

Using cold compresses is one of the easiest ways to treat an injury. Still, there can be unintended side effects if you don’t do use the compress properly.

Don'ts
  • Don't apply ice directly to the skin. It can stick to you and burn, causing further injury.
  • Don’t ice one area for too long. This can lead to frostbite.
  • Don’t use a cold compress for serious injuries. Your body may undergo too many changes for ice to serve any benefit.
  • Don’t put ice on areas with decreased sensation, such as from diabetes or Raynaud’s syndrome.

For long-term injuries like arthritis, chronic irritations, and constant stiffness of the joints, it’s best to use heat. Keep the “six week rule” in mind: For any injury that has lasted for more than six weeks, stick with heat to increase blood flow.

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Takeaway

The bottom line

Everyone faces injuries and muscles aches from time to time. Putting together a cold compress takes mere minutes and can often provide instant relief. You can make a compress from household items, including ice, bagged frozen vegetables, or even a frozen towel. It’s also a good idea to keep cold packs in your first-aid kit in case of emergencies.

Keep reading: Treating pain with heat and cold »

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