Many of us are aware that heat can burn our skin, but we can also suffer burns from ice or cold objects. Skin tissue can be damaged after coming into contact with anything that's extremely cold, like an ice pack, or if we spend too long in freezing temperatures.

In this article, learn what an ice burn is, what the symptoms and causes are, and how to treat ice burns.

What is an ice burn?

An ice burn occurs when ice or other extremely cold objects contact and damage the skin tissue. The water in the skin cells freeze, forming sharp ice crystals that can damage the skin cell structure.

Blood cells constrict, reducing blood flow and the amount of oxygen delivered to the area. Blood clots can form, further restricting oxygen flow. Bleeding may occur if the cold temperature affects blood-clotting proteins.

Ice burn symptoms

Ice burns on skin usually look like other types of burn, such as sunburn. A burn from ice can also cause the following symptoms:

  • numbness
  • pain
  • red, dark, white or grey skin
  • tingling
  • blisters
  • waxy skin

Frostbite vs an ice burn

There is a small difference between an ice or snow burn and frostbite. Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissue beneath it is frozen due to exposure to freezing temperatures.

If frostbite penetrates the deeper skin layers, impacting tissue and bone, it can cause permanent damage.
person holding block of ice
It's possible to get frostbite if you place ice or an ice pack directly on your skin.
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What causes an ice burn?

An ice or snow burn is caused by ice or something else that's very cold touching your skin for an extended period of time. Prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, snow, or high-velocity winds can increase the chance of a burn.

Ice burns are typically caused by ice or cold packs being pressed directly against the skin when treating an injury or sore muscles.
person holding ice
Freezing temperatures, or coming into direct contact with a cold object, can cause an ice burn.

How to prevent burns when using an ice pack

Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius, and ice that comes out of the freezer will probably be much colder. Applying an ice or chemical cold pack directly against the skin can cause a burn or frostbite within minutes. Follow these steps to prevent burns from ice packs:

  • Use a tea towel or layer of clothing between your skin and the cold source. Using a bag of frozen vegetables is another option, and can reduce the risk of burns on our skin.
  • Do not leave the ice pack against your skin longer than 20 minutes. A good method is 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.
  • Never fall asleep with an ice pack on your skin.

Learn how to use ice to treat ankle, wrist or knee pain.

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How to treat an ice burn

Treating an ice or snow burn involves slowly warming the skin to bring it back to its previous temperature. Follow these actions to treat a burn from ice immediately after the injury:

  • Remove the item causing the injury or get away from the cold source.
  • Remove any wet clothing and debris from any injured skin.
  • Do not touch or rub the area, as this can cause further damage.
  • Soak the affected area in warm, not hot, water for 20 minutes. Repeat this process if needed, with a 20-minute break between each soak.
  • Apply blankets or warm compresses, as well as the warm-water soaks.
If the ice burn eventually develops into a blister or open wound, clean it with Elastoplast Wound Spray before applying a dressing. Elastoplast Wound Healing Ointment can soothe the damaged skin.

Learn more about wound healing.
Packshot of Elastoplast Wound Healing Ointment 50g
Use Elastoplast Wound Healing Ointment to soothe damaged skin caused by ice burns.
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When to see a doctor about your ice burn

Most superficial snow and ice burns can be treated at home using the steps above, and often heal without the need for medical attention. However, contact your doctor if you notice any symptoms of a severe burn from ice:

  • skin turning and remaining dark, pale white, or grey, instead of regaining its normal complexion
  • skin feeling numb and not tingling during warm-water treatments
  • the affected body part doesn't function as normal
  • blood-filled blisters

These can be symptoms of severe tissue damage that require treatment.

Will my burn turn into a scar?

Ice burns can scar, but this depends on many factors including the size of the burn and how many tissue layers are affected.

An ice burn that only penetrates the epidermis (the outer layer of skin) is unlikely to cause significant scarring. Ice or snow burns affecting the dermis (lower layer) or the tissues beneath that are more complex wounds and can leave scars.
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Always see a doctor if the wound is deep, bleeds heavily or shows signs of infection like reddening, swelling or warmth.

Please note that, although these were compiled with great care, the tips and advice given on this website by no means substitute medical advice and treatment. If you have or suspect a health problem, consult a doctor and follow medical advice regardless of what you have learned on this website.

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